The wrath of God is a biblical reality that has been rejected in most churches today. Pastors and Christian leaders are careful not to offend their followers. However, if God is absolute, holy and separated from sin, then it follows that He must destroy sin and punish anyone who transgresses against Him. The concept of eternal conscious punishment has long since fallen out of favor in the contemporary evangelical church.
But there is another element of God’s wrath, even less popular, that is inflicted on sinners prior to their final judgment. Romans 1:18-32 traces the wrath of God as it is inflicted on sinners who deliberately suppress the truth of God and plunge into depravity. It is a painstakingly accurate portrayal of what happens to an individual or society that flagrantly suppresses the truth about God and is then given over to abandonment wrath. This essay will analyze how God’s wrath is revealed and inflicted in Romans 1 and summarize the universal condemnation of Romans 2, arguing that everyone – Jews and Gentiles – stand condemned before a righteous God.
The Wrath of God Revealed
The wrath of God may be defined as “The free, subjective and holy response of God to sin and to the evil and wickedness exhibited by creatures in opposition to God.” (1) Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.” This statement is part of an introductory unit that establishes the reality of the demonstration of God’s wrath. The verb “reveal” (ἀποκαλύπτω, apokalyptō) is in the present tense in Greek. This suggests the fixed wrath of God is being continuously revealed. It is not a distant eschatological expectation but a constant present reality for humanity.
It is common to postulate about the final outpouring of God’s wrath, but according to Romans 1:18, one can look to the present world system to see the wrath of God manifested against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. As Witmer states, “God’s wrath is directed against all the godlessness (asebeian, “lack of proper reverence for God”) and wickedness (adikian, “unrighteousness”) of men.” (2) The natural human condition that has no regard for God brings about a response of divine fury that must punish sin wherever it exists.
The Truth Suppressed
The second half of Romans 1:18 states the reason that God’s wrath is revealed. Men who have been exposed to the truth about God suppress that truth in unrighteousness. Unrighteous people actively “suppress” or “hold down” the truth (κατέχω, katechō). This verb is also in the present tense and conjures up the image of someone forcibly submerging a basketball underwater. This action is both intentional and determined. It follows then that everyone has received a general knowledge of the existence of God, called general revelation.
General revelation is not soteriological and does not by itself save anyone. General revelation is, however, necessary for sufficient revelation about who God is concerning at least two of His offices; Creator (revealed in the creative order) and Judge (revealed in the conscience). Consequently, Atheism is not mankind’s natural disposition; rather, it is the result of a determined rebellion against God’s general revelation. It is the first step in a downward spiral of depravity. There is no true atheist. Neither is there any agnostic in the true sense of the word.
As Steven Runge writes, “Since, in Romans 1:20, Paul tells us that God has clearly made Himself known by revealing His divine attributes, we cannot blame our separation from God on our lack of knowledge. Rather, the problem stems from our response to the knowledge He gives.” (3) Mankind’s first step in rebellion toward God is an outright rejection of who God is, considering how He has revealed Himself in creation.
Romans 1:19-20 says, “because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The method of God’s general revelation to mankind is the creative order. The Greek word for “evident,” phaneron, suggests that the existence of God is an obvious reality, attested to by all of creation. Even though God is Spirit and invisible to humans, all that exists testifies to His existence. To deny the existence of God, then, is to reject the revelation that God has given to every man.
A question one hears all the time is, “What about the innocent person who has never heard of Jesus?” If this passage is taken seriously, then no one is innocent. The reality of general revelation necessitates that man can either accept the existence of God in the world or he can suppress his knowledge of it. Everyone who embraces atheistic evolution as the mechanism behind the creative order has suppressed the very revelation that God has given about Himself, His eternal power, and His divine attributes. Paul’s conclusion? They stand before God with no excuse (v.20).
Man Plunges into Idolatry
In discussing sinful humanity, Paul says in Romans 1:21 that although they knew God, they refused to acknowledge Him as God or give Him glory. Instead, they worshipped creation. In idolatry, sinners strip God of His attributes and fashion Him in an image likened to mortal man or animals. Man is religious by nature, and when he replaces God with an idol in the likeness of an animal, he will behave like an animal because man generally considers himself inferior to what he worships. Man’s degeneration into idolatry, as expressed in Romans 1:21-23, destroys the idea that man is improving and evolving with time. Quite the opposite is true. As one commentator says, “Instead of evolving from lower forms, “early man” was of a high moral order. By refusing to acknowledge the true, infinite, incorruptible God, he devolved into the stupidity and depravity that go with idol worship. This whole passage gives the lie to evolution.” (4)
Accordingly, man became futile (μάτην = vain or foolish) in his thoughts. All his imaginations at this point are consistent with his idolatry, which is a byproduct of his utter rejection of God’s general revelation. As a result, God acts and punishes man for his rebellion.
The Wrath of God Inflicted
Verse 21 states that “their foolish hearts were darkened.” “Darkened” is used in the passive intransitive sense. The idolaters did not darken their own hearts; their hearts were darkened by the One whom they have sinned against. The result is that God gave them up to immorality (v.24). The interlocutor may object that it is not fair for God to darken someone’s heart, but it must be remembered that 1) God has every right to do what He sees fit with His creation, and 2) The sinner first rejected all knowledge of God prior to God darkening his heart, and he stands with no excuse (v.20). Idolatry always leads to sexual immorality.
Not all scholars acknowledge that Paul describes rapid moral degeneration here. One scholar writes, “In the face of these plain declarations of the descent of man’s religious belief from loftier to ever lower and more debasing conceptions of the Supreme Being, there are expositors of this very Epistle (as Reiche and Jowett), who, believing neither in any fall from primeval innocence, nor in the noble traces of that innocence which lingered even after the fall and were only by degrees obliterated by willful violence to the dictates of conscience.” (5)
It must be remembered that God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen (kathoratai) in the creative order. When man rejects this revelation, God darkens his heart, not by implanting evil within it, but by withdrawing all divine restraints of grace that prevent him from manifesting the full extent of his depraved nature. This is also called abandonment wrath, when God leaves man to his own devices, with the result that he plunges into the depths of lawlessness before being punished eternally in Hell. Paul makes the case that man’s natural disposition is bent against God and that, left unchecked, man is helplessly depraved.
Man’s Descent into Immorality
Verse 26 says, “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.” The result of man’s incessant idolatry is that he is given over to vile passions. Ultimately, man is “given over” three times in Romans 1. The word translated vile (ἀτιμία) can also be translated “disgraceful” or “dishonorable.” The sin in reference is none other than homosexuality, a heinous and disgusting sin punishable by death under the Old Testament law that still is an abomination before God today. N.P. Williams writes, “The result of the mental confusion engendered by sophistical dialectic is idolatry, in gross and fetishistic forms. This is punished by God with ‘judicial abandonment’ to sexual impurity, of a monstrous and unnatural kind.” (6)
Lesbianism results first because the abdication of male leadership in the moral realm of society causes women to freefall into moral debauchery. Male homosexuality inevitably follows, as v.27 describes: “Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”
Any attempts to alter the meaning of the passage to make it not condemn homosexuality (such as arguing that Paul is only condemning a heterosexual practicing homosexuality, not a homosexual practicing his natural orientation) are built on imaginary exegetical grounds and further demonstrate mankind’s moral depravity in attempting to justify his unrighteousness. Biblically speaking, any sexual relationship outside of the covenant bond of heterosexual marriage is sin and subject to the wrath of God (Gen. 2:21-24; Lev 20:13; Matt. 19:4-6).
In summarizing the theological element of Romans 1, Jerry Johnson writes that “Paul makes a theological argument in Rom. 1:18-32 that homosexuality is one consequence of rejecting God as Creator and His created order. Paul indicates that both male homosexuality and female lesbianism result from a denial of God.” (7)
Given a Reprobate Mind
Verse 28 describes how God, in judgment, has given sinners over to a reprobate mind. The word for reprobate (ἀ-δόκιμος) is used throughout Scripture and carries the one predominant meaning of not standing the test or being rejected (Hebrews 6:8). It is used specifically in reference to persons who, after having undergone spiritual evaluation, are rejected, or reprobate: (Ro 1:28, 1 Co 9:27, 2 Co 13:5-7, 2 Tit 3:8, Tit 1:16). (8)
The downward spiral in Romans 1:21-28 can describe both individuals who reject God as well as civilizations that rebel against His created order. The unmistakable indicator that a society is under judgment is its promotion of homosexuality. God does not only reject civilizations after they practice and promote homosexuality; rather, the acceptance of homosexuality within a nation is proof that the nation has already been given over to divine judgment.
The sins listed in vs. 29-31 are the natural byproduct of a debased mind that has utterly rejected God. They illustrate man in his totally depraved state apart from God’s restraining grace. All sin eventually leads to death (James 1:15), so Paul goes on that these people (and those who promote them) deserve to die (v.32). Here in Romans 1:18-32 lies God’s indictment of all humanity; man has rejected general revelation, fallen into idolatry, practiced sexual immorality, and is under divine judgment in this life (evidenced by homosexuality). The unequivocal sentence is death (Romans 1:32; 6:23).
All of Mankind Condemned
In Chapter 2, Paul makes the case that all of mankind falls under this universal condemnation and that no one may think of himself as morally superior to another (v.1: “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man [ἄνθρωπος, anthrōpos], whoever you are who judge”). The religious hypocrite is justly condemned, as is the Jew who trusts in his law-keeping (v. 9, v.17), and the Gentile (v.14). Why the Gentile? Because he was given a conscience (Lat: con = with; science = knowledge), which he is accountable to God for. Romans 3:10-11 states the unavoidable conclusion: “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.'”
Man stands universally condemned by the law before a perfectly righteous God. He cannot be justified by the law (v.20) because he is depraved and spiritually dead. This dramatically sets the stage for man’s justification apart from the law, which Paul reveals beginning in Romans 3:21.
God has graciously revealed himself to man by His creation of an extraordinary universe filled with scientific and natural phenomena that testify to the existence of God. Furthermore, God has placed within every man a conscience that renders him accountable before God. The proper response to these two components of general revelation is to humbly recognize God as Creator and Judge and to acknowledge His right to establish order in society. Instead, man, in his depravity, has spitefully rejected God, replacing Him with animals and other created beings. God, in turn, has given him up to his own uncleanness.
As man deliberately blocks God out of his mind, God, in a judicial act, releases him to embody the full extent of his sin nature. The extreme manifestation of this is the promotion and practice of homosexuality, which is unambiguously condemned throughout Scripture (Lev 18:22, Lev 20:20, Romans 1:26-28, Jude 7). The society that promotes homosexuality is under divine judgment. Anyone who transgresses against God is deserving of death (Romans 1:32), and nobody escapes condemnation. The Gentile is condemned because even without the Mosaic Law, his conscience condemns him. Neither law-keeping nor circumcision will help the Jew because he has not kept the entire law (Romans 2:25).
Man, on his own, stands helplessly condemned, and this makes him a prime candidate for the most marvelous gift of grace in the history of the world: the free offer of justification for all those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Southern California Seminary, El Cajon, CA
1. Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 122.
2. John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 442.
3. Steven E. Runge, High Definition Commentary: Romans (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 26.
4. William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1678.
5. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 225.
6. N. P. Williams, “The Epistle to the Romans,” in A New Commentary on Holy Scripture: Including the Apocrypha, ed. Charles Gore, Henry Leighton Goudge, and Alfred Guillaume, vol. 3 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), 454.
7. Jerry A. Johnson, “Homosexuality,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 777.
8. G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 10