“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves…”
We have already seen that the Gospel of Christ is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes; thus, the question arises, “Why do we need salvation in the first place?” In verse 17 Paul wrote that God’s righteousness is revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then in verse 18 he writes that God’s wrath is also revealed in the Gospel of Christ. The same word is used for “reveal” in both verses and from this word we get the word apocalypse, or revelation as in the Revelation of St. John the Divine. God, through the Gospel, reveals both his righteousness and his wrath; furthermore, both his righteousness and his wrath are being experienced existentially as we speak. Why do we need salvation? The answer is “We need salvation from the wrath of God.” This is St. Paul’s answer and to completely answer this question he used up 2 ½ Chapters of his epistle to the Romans.
Our goal today is to understand Romans 1:18-32, where St. Paul addressed the human condition vis-à-vis the Greek or the non-Jewish world.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…”
St. Paul uses two Greek words that have been translated “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” to describe the condition of the Gentile world. The first word, ungodliness, pronounces contempt toward God and the second word, unrighteousness, indicates wicked behavior, and taken together the upshot of verse 18 is the whole pagan world has deliberately suppressed the truth of God. That is what the last phrase, “holding the truth in unrighteousness” means; and this suppression of God’s truth has led not only to depraved behavior, but also to what Paul later calls “senselessness” and an intellectual attachment to illusion. Though this passage is all about the Gentile world, the Apostle’s opening proposition certainly is meant to assert that the whole human race, Jew and Gentile, has consciously and intentionally suppressed God’s truth; moreover, both individually and collectively the whole human race is living in light of the suppression of God’s truth. Now there are two questions that I want to answer in this sermon: First of all, “What is the truth of God that is being suppressed? And secondly, “What is God’s wrath?”
First of all, what is the truth of God? In order to resolve this question for everyone St. Paul does not hesitate to use Hellenistic philosophical language that had long entered the common market of ideas in Rome and her colonies like Corinth and Galatia. Paul wrote:
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse…”
This is not the way a Jew talks about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but it is the way a Greek philosopher, a Roman moralist and especially a Stoic speculated about God. Compare St. Paul’s statement to this sample of a popular philosophical text of that day, a pseudo-Aristotelian:
“This is what we must also believe about God, who is mightiest in power, outstanding in beauty, immortal in life, and supreme in excellence, because though he is invisible to every mortal thing he is seen through his deeds.” (Pseudo-Aristotle De mundo)
In Rome and her colonies this is the sort of thing that might have engendered numerous conversations and even heated arguments at the barbershops or the public baths. But before one gets too excited and begins seeing the unknown Christian amongst the pagan philosophers, do not forget that Paul has at the outset characterized the Gentile world as ungodly and unrighteous. This is the way Paul put it:
“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful…”
What is the truth of God that Paul says the whole world has deserted for a lie? It is what Paul calls the “eternal power and Godhead,” the very divinity of God. The truth of God is that God is God and the whole world belongs to God. Some may speak of the secular world, but from Paul’s point-of-view the notion of secularism is delusional and a result of sin; the whole world belongs to its Creator. The basic sin of the world, whether Jewish or Gentile, is refusing to acknowledge God in his power and Lordship. It is the lie that man has come of age. Four times St. Paul declares that the Gentile did not merely have the possibility of knowing God, but that as a matter of fact they did know God and just like Adam they turned from God.
Verse 19, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them…”
Verse 19, “God hath shewed it unto them…”
Verse 20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen…”
Verse 21, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful…”
The Gentile responded to God just as miserably as did the Jew. Like Adam they traded the truth of God for a lie and they chose to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Humanity’s guilt is not ignorance of the truth, but it is rather their rejection of the truth of God as God. This is a major point for St Paul’s theology: our existence, our way of existence, and our perception of reality, crashed and burned when we exchanged the Lordship of God for the lordship of creation, and joined to that rejection of God is the universal, hard truth that a servant becomes like his master.
Between verse 18 and verse 32 St. Paul states three times that humanity has “exchanged the truth” of God, or the glory of God, or the natural, God-given use of creation for a lie.
“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.”
All humanity has become dishonorable, disgraceful and darkened by exchanging the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like a corruptible creature. It isn’t as clear in our translations but the Greek text makes things worse because it states that man has exchanged the glory of the eternal, holy God into an image of an image of the creature. Man is not one step, but three steps from reality, from the true, the good and the beautiful and he doesn’t even know it. Man has exchanged the truth of God for a lie about a lie. The Roman Christian hearing Paul’s epistle read out loud had only to step out into the street and he would see the marble statues of pagan gods like Mars and Venus and Vulcan painted in bright, garish colors. And if the Christian Jew happened to feel superior to the Romans, St. Paul’s reference to worshipping the image of a creature would quickly remind him of the Golden Calf and their ancestors’ apostasy. Two more times St. Paul refers to human beings exchanging God’s truth:
Verse 25: “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
Verse 26: “their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature…”
This is the upshot what it means to “change the truth of God.” All of humanity, Jew and Gentile, even though they knew God, they rejected God as Lord and for the sake of what they thought was freedom they broke off their relationship with God. They suppressed the truth that God is God. Man’s suppression of that truth has resulted in the frustration of the very faculty by which he knew God in the first place, and thus his mind had been darkened. By rejecting what ought to be the principle object of his thought and his devotion, the God who created the world, the human mind has become “senseless” and attached to illusions rather than reality. Paul has the greatest respect for the faculty of reason, but reason cannot function as God intended it to because man’s mind has been darkened by his suppression of God’s truth. By dishonoring God man has in turn dishonored himself and all of creation, and he has extinguished the light that illuminates all truth. St. Paul then declares that this exchange of the truth that God is God for a lie is made evident in the exchanging of sexual roles in homosexual behavior. In the beginning God created male and female, and natural sexual behavior between them results in the creation of another human being. The creation that obeys God is fruitful and multiplies. But homosexual behavior results in nothing but futility. For St. Paul this is another example of exchanging the truth that God is God for a lie, of trading off the glory of God, of desolation, of just one more dead end amongst countless other dead ends. In order to make his point Paul lists out 22 sins that fill mankind with misery: jealousy, murder, rivalry, deceit, spite, slander, arrogance and heartlessness are a few of those sinful dispositions that poison human society and are signs of our separation from God just as much as sexual misbehaviors or sexual disorders.
And this brings us to the wrath of God. After each declaration that mankind has in one manner or another exchanged God’s truth for a lie, St. Paul declares – again three times – that God has “given them up.”
Verse 24: “Wherefore God also gave them up…”
Verse 26: “For this cause God gave them up…”
Verse 28: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them up…”
Humanity having turned to idolatry, has abandoned the true God and God has permitted him to do so. This is the wrath of God: permitting man to break free of God and to live on his own. The rupture of our relationship with God brings on the wrath of God but his wrath is manifested not by raining down blows upon us, but by stepping aside. The vices and sins that St. Paul lists here do not call down the wrath of God; they are the wrath of God already present in our life. What has provoked the wrath of God is the ungodliness that consists essentially in the “suppression of the truth” of God as our Lord and Creator. God’s judgment is to grant mankind the separation from God that he wants. Man’s desire has become man’s fate, his wish becomes his unavoidable punishment as he detaches from God and makes the creature his lord. The life that Christ lived, the death he died and his resurrection from the dead – the Gospel is the power to save us from this death.