Romans 1:18–23 (ESV) — 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
In verse 17, Paul declared that God’s righteousness was revealed.
- We saw that the idea was that God’s divine activity – promise fulfillment, covenant faithfulness, status giving, etc. – was unveiled in history through the indicatives of Jesus Christ.
- And by faith it is possible to be connected to and participate in this activity – to participate in the Gospel.
And, importantly, the faith that first secures the outcome is God’s faithfulness to mankind.
- Man’s faith doesn’t save him, but connects him to the work that flows from God’s faithfulness as unveiled and revealed in the Gospel.
In verse 18, Paul changes gears.
- For the next couple of chapters, Paul explains that God’s divine activity of “saving righteousness” (Tom Schreiner) unveils another activity of God…
- God’s wrath – his “judging righteousness” (Tom Schreiner).
- “Wrath is the inevitable result, or consequence, of human sin in a moral universe” – DPL.
N.T. Wright goes so far as to say:
- The Gospel itself is “the unveiling of God’s justice [wrath] and salvation”.
Therefore, both God’s “saving righteousness” and His “judging righteousness” are revealed as He acts to redeem creation and inaugurate His kingdom.
- Or to put another way…
“The revelation of God’s saving righteousness exposes the full wickedness of human sin and the depth of God’s wrath against it [His judging righteousness]” – Tom Schreiner.
This is why, as we said last week, that God’s wrath can be seen as part of “the establishment of the divine rule of holiness” – TDNT.
- God is acting to put the world to rights (N.T. Wright), and his wrath is part of the process.
Having seen last week exactly what God’s wrath is, we can now contend with verses 18-23.
Paul not only tells us that God’s wrath is revealed, but…
- He also reveals against whom is God’s wrath revealed.
Paul says that the object of God’s wrath is…
- “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (vs. 18).
- This “men” is everybody without exception.
- Paul “lays out a charge against the human race in general” – N.T. Wright.
- “Paul first indicts the Gentiles (1:18–32) and then the Jews (2:1–3:8)” – Tom Schreiner.
Paul then makes a huge contrast over against the “revealing” of God.
- Whereas God has revealed His righteousness.
- And God has revealed His wrath.
- Men, because of their unrighteousness, “suppress the truth” (vs. 18).
- God reveals and men suppress!
That this revealing/suppression contrast occurs on a grand scale is evident in the ministry of Jesus.
- Jesus’ ministry was a revealing of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God.
- Both His teaching and miracles were done at the authority of the Father for this purpose.
- In the course of this revealing, thousands met Jesus, were taught by Jesus, were fed by Jesus and were healed by Jesus.
And yet – in spite of this revealing – by the end of John 6 we see merely a handful standing by Him.
- John 6:60–66 (ESV) — 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” 66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.
So what does Paul mean when he says men suppress the truth?
To suppress is simply to stifle, restrain or hold down the things they know to be true about God.
- It is a willful act for which men are fully responsible.
- And because of it, Paul says men are “without excuse” (vs. 20).
BTW – It is important to point out – in context – that Paul is saying something else in verse 20.
- Even if you – Gentiles – didn’t have the law like your Jewish brothers and sisters…
- You are still “without excuse” (vs. 20).
Logically, then, to suppress something “that thing” has to be present.
- Men, in their unrighteousness, aren’t suppressing “nothing”.
- They are suppressing the revealed truth of God.
Paul makes it fairly plain.
- There is a truth that “can be known about God” (vs. 19).
- This truth is “plain to them” (vs. 19).
- And, in fact, it is plain to them because God Himself has “shown it to them” (vs. 19).
- God is a God who reveals.
He starts by explaining exactly what they know that God has plainly shown them.
- The stuff he is talking about, what God has shown them, is “in the things that have been made” (vs. 20).
Paul is operating under a presupposition that many today would object to.
- Creation requires a Creator.
- We are here yet we aren’t responsible for being here.
- For him, this is a brute fact.
He describes what creation plainly shows about God.
- “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (vs. 20).
- This is the truth men are suppressing.
What is this truth?
- Robert Jewett says simply that “eternal power” and “divine nature” are a Greek and Jewish way of referring to “the true status of God” – His status as the preeminent one.
“The truth that people have unrighteously suppressed and rejected is that the one true God should be honored and worshiped and esteemed as God” – Tom Schreiner.
So, as with Genesis 3, men – in their unrighteousness – knowingly disregard the creature/Creator distinction.
- Men usurp God’s rightful place – something that is “plain to them” – and install idols or themselves in His place.
- They “refuse to give God his proper sovereignty in one’s life” – Tom Schreiner.
- This is what Paul means when he says men are unrighteous (Tom Schreiner).
He even reiterates his “plain to them” (vs. 19) language…
- He says God’s preeminence has “been clearly perceived” (vs. 20).
- For how long? – “since the creation of the world” (vs. 20).
Again, his point here is not to make an argument for God.
- He is telling us why all men are “without excuse”.
- Why “all people, without exception, are under the dominion of sin” – Schreiner.
- And ultimately, in context, why they therefore are under God’s wrath.
He then goes on to explain what happens when one suppresses the truth of God.
- They don’t “honor him as God” (vs. 21).
- They don’t “give thanks to him” (vs. 21).
In fact they do quite the opposite.
- They become “futile in their thinking” (vs. 21)
- Their “foolish hearts become darkened” (vs. 21)
- Instead of wise “they became fools” (vs. 22)
- Implied in Paul’s words is that men honor and give thanks to themselves.
Douglas Moo puts it this way:
“It is in the ‘reasonings’ of people that this futility has taken place, showing that, whatever their initial knowledge of God might be, their natural capacity to reason accurately about God is quickly and permanently harmed” – Douglas Moo.
Finally, they become idolaters – exchanging the “glory of the immortal God for images” (vs. 23)
- Man, birds, animals, creeping things.
- The things of Genesis 1 – creatures.
They spurn the “glory of the immortal God” (vs. 23) for something other.
- They deny God His rightful place, His preeminence.
And, coming back to where Paul started in verse 18 – where God’s wrath is revealed…
He is saying that the futility, foolishness and darkened hearts show that “the wrath of God is already manifest” in men – Robert Jewett.
- These things are evidence of it.
Robert Jewett expands on this idea:
“In their competition for honor, they claim a status due only to God and end up in shameful distortion. The present preaching of the gospel ‘reveals’ this hidden reality” – Robert Jewett.
Tom Schreiner says this:
“God’s eschatological wrath is also being disclosed in the present age…The coming of the gospel reveals that the moral deterioration of human society is a result of God’s judgment” – Tom Schreiner.
Something very important should be repeated.
- We are not unrighteousness because we break God’s law…
- For Paul, unrighteousness is our “rejection of God as God, a failure to give Him honor and glory” – Tom Schreiner.
- “Failing to glorify God is the root sin” – Tom Schreiner.
Therefore something very important should be obvious.
- We all are unrighteous and “suppress the truth” (vs. 18) – deny God His preeminence.
- As Paul will conclude in 3:23 – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Therefore, without God’s revealed righteousness (1:17), we are in trouble.
- Only God’s righteousness – His faithfulness, His divine activity – responded to in faith can bring us to a place where we honor God as God.
- Only this Gospel can remove us from God’s wrath – the law can’t do this!
Moo puts it this way:
“At the very center of every person, where the knowledge of God, if it is to have any positive effects, must be embraced, there has settled a darkness—a darkness that only the light of the gospel can penetrate” – Douglas Moo.
And we will conclude with N.T. Wright:
“Human beings were made to know, worship, love and serve the creator God. That always was and always will be the way to healthy and fruitful human living. It demands, of course, a certain kind of humility: a willingness to let God be God, to celebrate and honour him as such, and acknowledge his power in and over the world” – N.T. Wright.