A Forgotten Doctrine: The Wrath of God

Romans 1:18-20

April 6, 1997 | Ray Pritchard

Sometimes the title tells the whole story. My sermon today is about the wrath of God. It is truly a forgotten doctrine, even in the evangelical church. I’ll dare say that many of you have never heard a sermon on God’s wrath—that is, not a full sermon devoted to this one topic.

The reasons for this apparent neglect are not hard to find. Most of us would rather hear about love and grace. I know I would rather preach about God’s grace. After all, to speak of the wrath of God makes us appear narrow-minded, judgmental, and God help us, fundamentalist. In an enlightened community like Oak Park, those aren’t popular adjectives. And on another level, God’s wrath is difficult to comprehend, so in some ways, this is a doctrine that is easy to overlook. The thought that nice people we know might someday go to eternal hell is so overwhelming—and so disheartening—that we’d much rather not think about it at all.

No Need to Apologize

Many Christians feel as if they have to apologize for this doctrine. Some think it a blemish on God’s character. Others think that God’s wrath is inconsistent with his love. Perhaps if you brought a friend this morning, you feel you need to say a word of apology after the sermon is over. Please don’t! There is no need to apologize for God’s Word so long as it is fairly and graciously presented. And I intend to be both fair and gracious in what I have to say.

Let us then consider the words of J. I. Packer: “The fact is that the subject of divine wrath has become taboo in modern society, and Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the matter” (Knowing God, p. 149). True though these words may be, two facts stare us in the face:

The Bible says more about wrath than about love.

Jesus spoke more about hell than about heaven.

We may speculate as to the reasons behind those two facts, but no amount of reasoning can change the truth. The Bible is filled with warnings about God’s wrath and about eternal judgment. I would not be a faithful pastor if I did not deal with this topic. God has made no secret of his wrath, and neither should we.

The Meaning of God’s Wrath

Let’s begin with a simple definition of wrath as one of God’s attributes. It’s important to get a proper definition because when we use the word wrath we tend to think of uncontrolled anger. While that may be human wrath, it is far from the truth about God’s wrath. Here’s a working definition: God’s wrath is his settled hostility toward sin in all its various manifestations. To say it is “settled” hostility means that God’s holiness cannot and will not coexist with sin in any form whatsoever. God’s wrath is his holy hatred of all that is unholy. It is his righteous indignation at everything that is unrighteous.

Please note these distinctions. God’s wrath is not …

Uncontrollable rage.

Vindictive bitterness.

God losing his temper.

In fact, the Bible says in more than one place that God is “slow to anger” (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8). God never “loses his temper” the way we do. Wrath is God’s “natural” response to sin in the universe. He cannot overlook it, he cannot wink at it, he cannot pretend it is not there.

Wrath is what happens when holiness meets sin!

Wrath is what happens when justice meets rebellion!

Wrath is what happens when righteousness meets unrighteousness!

Wrath is what happens when perfect good meets pure evil!

As long as God is God, he cannot overlook sin. As long as God is God, he cannot stand by indifferently while his creation is destroyed. As long as God is God, he cannot dismiss lightly those who trample his holy will. As long as God is God, he cannot wink when men mock his name.

With that as background we now turn to the clearest passage in the Bible on God’s wrath—Romans 1:18-32.

The Revelation of God’s Wrath

Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”

This passage pronounces God’s judgment on the whole human race. And it comes in response to man’s rejection. The truth is, we’ve got the problem—not God. First man rebels and then God responds with his wrath.

There is a simple progression here:

Men by nature suppress the truth about God.

That suppression leads to ungodliness.

Ungodliness leads on to wickedness.

That wickedness leads to every kind of evil and violence.

The upshot is that Paul is teaching that moral perversion comes from perversion in faith. Or to say it another way, apostasy in doctrine leads eventually to apostasy in lifestyle. What you believe is how you live. And once you decide to turn your back on God, the end result is a river of wickedness flowing out of your life. The only thing damming that river is the constraint of your own conscience or the constraint of circumstances. Left to himself man always turns to wickedness. Always. There are no exceptions.

Notice how it happens: First men reject the truth about God, then they turn away from God, then they turn to immorality. And the shocking truth is that this goes on all the time. Every baby born into this world comes in with a disposition that turns him away from the truth. Each man, each woman, the educated and the illiterate alike, all by nature suppress the truth about God. Left to your own devices, you will always turn to wickedness.

That’s why “suppress” is in the present tense. Men by nature always and in every case suppress the truth about God. That’s how you can have mass murderers who used to attend Sunday School and prostitutes who once sang in the church choir. This is true in every generation and every culture. It ultimately includes every individual on earth. All of us suppress the truth about God. All of us when left to ourselves will turn to wickedness. As hard as that may be for you to accept, it is exactly what the Apostle Paul is teaching.

The Result of God’s Wrath

Verses 21-23 trace the downward progression as men come under God’s wrath. What starts with indifference ends in total moral corruption.

Stage 1: Indifference to God

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (21a). Truth demands a response, and the truth about God demands that we the creatures glorify him as the great Creator. When we don’t, we fail in the great purpose for which we were created.

Stage 2: Moral blindness

“But their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (21b-22). If the first step might be summed up in the word “neglect,” the second step might be called “speculation.” As men become indifferent to known truth, they begin to actively search for alternative explanations. Paul draws a vivid picture of the result: “Their thinking became futile.” This refers to the mental processes of those who turned away from God. Their thinking—that is, their ability to look at the world around them and to draw accurate conclusions about it—became futile. Goodspeed says they were given over to “futile speculation.”

It’s a strange picture of men who, having rejected the truth, desperately search for anything to replace it. They flit from idea to idea, from hypothesis to hypothesis, from theory to theory, frantically looking for a unifying world view. These are men who could not stop thinking about God, but the more they thought, the more wrong their conclusions became. They couldn’t stop thinking and they couldn’t get it right.

Stage 3: Loss of God

“And exchanged the glory of the immortal God” (23a). Note the progression: Neglect leads to speculation which leads to moral blindness which now climaxes with a total loss of God.

Here is the divine estimate of the great philosophers of Greece and Rome. In God’s eyes they were fools because their philosophy was based on a rejection of God’s truth. Dr. R. A. Torrey used to read verse 22 this way, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became philosophers? No, Foolosophers.” That’s what God thinks of the world’s intellectuals. Although possessing great intelligence, they are moral and spiritual pygmies.

Have you ever ridden a see-saw? It works on a very simple principle: If one person is up, the other person must be down. Both people can’t be up at the same time. It’s the same in the spiritual realm. If God is up, then man is down. If man is up, then God is down. Both can’t be up at the same time. When God is up in his rightful place, man will be down in his rightful place. But when the roles are reversed reality itself is distorted.

Stage 4: Idolatry

“For images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (23b). What has happened? Because man is incurably religious, if he will not worship God, he will find (or make) something to worship.

We now reach the final stage. Note the progression within this verse. When man turns away from God, he creates an “image” to worship. First there are images that look human, then the images themselves begin to degrade into images of birds, then four-footed animals and finally images of snakes and snails and bugs. Interesting. When man turns from God, he begins by worshiping himself, but he doesn’t stay there. The course is always downward.

Don’t miss the point. When you turn away from God, you always turn to something else. No man lives in a vacuum. You either worship God or replace him with a god of your own making!

Paul uses an unusual word to drive this point home. He says men “exchange” the glory of God for man-made images. It’s what happens after Christmas when you decide you don’t like the angora sweater Aunt Elsie gave you. You take it back to the store and exchange it for a power drill. (Or a Nintendo game, if you are under 12.) In the same way, men swap God for idols.

God Gave Them Up

God’s three-fold response may be seen in verses 24, 26, and 28:

Verse 24 — “God gave them over.”

Verse 26 — “God gave them over.”

Verse 28 — “He gave them over.”

The word in Greek is paredoken. The King James Version translates it as “God gave them up.” Barclay renders it “God abandoned them.” J. B. Phillips says, “They gave up God. So God gave them up.” It is a very strong word, meaning that act of God whereby he hands over the human race for judgment because of their sins. In this passage Paul is telling us what happens when men turn away from God. “When men lose God, they always lose themselves.” It’s as if God has said, “All right. If you want to turn away from me, I’ll let you go. I won’t try to stop you. But you’ll have to face the consequences of your own actions.”

#1: Sexual immorality 24-25

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

#2: Widespread Homosexuality 26-27

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

#3: Total moral depravity 28-32

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

The Final Step

Verse 32 brings before us the final step in God’s judgment: Public praise for evildoers. Ponder this verse carefully and ask what it really means: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” We have now reached the bottom, and it is not a nice place to be. The bottom is where you are when evil becomes good and good becomes evil. The bottom is where you are when the wrongdoers are publicly praised while defenders of morality are reviled. The bottom is where you are when truth is on the scaffold and wrong is on the throne. The Living Bible has a striking translation of the first part of this verse: “They were fully aware of God’s death penalty for these crimes, yet they went right ahead and did them anyway.” That, my friends, is the bottom—when evil is celebrated publicly!

At this point you have the total reversal of values in society. I do not think it unfair to say that we have essentially reached this point in America. The wrongdoers have nearly taken control of two key areas of modern society—education and the media. Now they seek legal status for their iniquity. And they defy all attempts at control. When a major magazine argues that homosexuality is “normal” and when a public figure is chastised for speaking out against it, when the churches are ordaining homosexuals and those who object are mercilessly vilified, when Baptist ministers rally in support of a boxing champion convicted of rape, when all those things are true, what you have is the final loss of public morality. No one knows the difference between right and wrong because the values of society have been turned upside down.

In Oak Park this week we crossed a line that should not have been crossed. Last Tuesday we elected a self-professed lesbian to the Board of Trustees. When I say “self-professed,” I refer to the fact that she openly spoke about her sinful lifestyle and in fact ran as the unofficial candidate of the gay community here in Oak Park. This week the Wednesday Journal (our local paper) reported that the Windy City Times (the gay newspaper of Chicago) recently called Oak Park “the gay-friendliest city in Illinois.” The shock of it all is that no one is really shocked. I wonder if we’ll put that on our welcome signs. Won’t that be a good way to attract young families to our community?

Romans 1 Comes True in Oak Park

Romans 1 has come true before our very eyes. Oak Park is under the judgment of God because we as a village have turned away from God. The homosexuality in our midst is part of that judgment. We said, “We want to be free and open and tolerant and diverse.” We said, “We want to be free of that narrow-minded attitude that condemns homosexuality.” And God said, “All right. You can be free of it. But you’ll have to face the consequences of your own decision.” That’s exactly what’s happening in 1997.

Let us understand something at this point. God’s judgment on sin is generally not of the fire and brimstone variety. That rarely happens. When God wants to judge a community or a nation, he simply lets sin take its natural course. If we insist on destroying ourselves, God says, “OK, go ahead and destroy yourselves. I won’t stop you.” He simply lets us go our merry way. The true judgment on the human race is that man has turned away from God and does not realize it.

What is the judgment of God when men turn away from him? God “gives them up” to their own devices. He lets them follow their own desires. He doesn’t try to stop their meteoric descent into the abyss. God “abandons” the human race by letting men reap what they sow. Nothing more terrible could ever be contemplated. When men “abandon” God in their thinking, God “abandons” them. Why? Because God is a perfect gentleman. He respects the freedom of the human will. If a man or a woman decides to live without him, he says, “Fine. You can live without me. In the end, you’ll be sorry. But if that’s your decision, I’ll respect it.”

The Deliverance From God’s Wrath

So far in this sermon I have yet to give a word of hope. I’m glad to tell you that I do have hope to share. It’s wrapped up in an important word you need to know: Propitiation. It’s a rare word, yet it’s used six times in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ on the cross. To propitiate means to “turn away wrath by offering a gift.” Pagan religions are built on the concept of propitiation, whereby a devotee brings a chicken, a goat, a lamb, or a plate of food and offers it to his god. I saw that very thing happen in Haiti and also in India. By bringing the blood of a chicken, the followers of voodoo hope to appease the evil spirits and turn away their wrath. On a completely different level, a husband does this after having a fight with his wife when he stops at the freeway offramp and buys flowers on the way home. He hopes the offering of flowers will turn away wrath and restore a right relationship.

In the Old Testament the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year—on the Day of Atonement—bringing with him the blood of a bull. When he sprinkled the blood on the Mercy Seat—the lid of the Ark of the Covenant—that blood was accept by God as an “atonement” or a “covering” for the sin of the people.

The New Testament picks up this idea of propitiation in 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The phrase “atoning sacrifice” translates the normal Greek word of propitiation. By the offering of himself, Jesus turned away God’s wrath forever.

Let me give you three truths to summarize the effects of propitiation:

Because Jesus Christ died, God’s justice is now satisfied.

Because Jesus Christ died, God’s wrath has now been turned away. The price for sin has been paid.

Because Jesus Christ died, God’s mercy is now freely available to anyone who wants it.

Justice satisfied … the price paid … mercy available. What an awesome thought. God’s wrath is real, but so is his mercy. He satisfied his own wrath by offering his own Son on the cross. “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Two Final Thoughts

1. Because Christ bore the full weight of God’s wrath, we now enjoy the full blessing of God’s mercy.

If you are a Christian and you are living with a guilt complex because you think God hates you, how little you understand of the cross of Christ. The table of the Lord is God’s final proof that he is not angry at you. He loves you and is merciful towards you. His wrath has been turned away.

2. For those who reject Christ, there is nowhere else to turn.

By that I simply mean the gift of Christ is so great, his sacrifice so magnificent, his death so awesome in its benefits, that if you decide to go someplace else, what you will find is there is no place else to go. If you turn from the cross and go back into the world, or if you think you can do it on your own and save yourself, if you turn from Jesus Christ, you will discover there is no place else to go. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.

William Cowper

Some 220 years ago there was a man in England by the name of William Cowper. A man of nervous disposition, he often struggled with bouts of severe depression. At one point in his life he became extremely depressed and fearful that he was under the wrath of God. “I flung myself into a chair by the window and there saw the Bible on the table by the chair. I opened it up and my eyes fell on Romans 3:25, which says of Christ, ‘Whom God has made a propitiation through faith in his blood.’” These are his words: “Then and there, I realized what Christ’s blood had accomplished and I realized the effects of his atonement for me. I realized God was willing to justify me and then and there I trusted Jesus Christ and a great burden was lifted from my soul.”

Looking back on that day, William Cowper wrote a hymn that is still in our hymnbook today.

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stain.

I wonder if you have ever been plunged beneath the flood of the blood of Jesus Christ? God’s Son has made propitiation. He has turned away the wrath of God. He shed his blood and what was a place of judgment is now a mercy seat for people like you and like me. I urge you right now in the name of Jesus Christ, to run to the cross. Cling to the bloody cross of Calvary and there you will find that your sins are forgiven and you will find the forgiveness that you seek. God help you to run to the cross and cling to Jesus today.

Our heavenly father, in these moments grant by your Holy Spirit to draw seekers to the Savior. Grant by your Holy Spirit the blessing now that someone would come to Jesus Christ and find the forgiveness they need. We pray in his name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?