No one likes to talk about the wrath of God, particularly if it is thought of in relation to ourselves. But if we have to think about it, as our study of these verses obviously forces us to do, we find ourselves reacting generally in one of two ways. Either (1) we argue that wrath is somehow unworthy of God, a blotch on His character, and therefore a mistaken notion that should be abandoned at once by all right-thinking people; or (2) we reply by denying that we merit God’s wrath, that we don’t deserve it. This second reaction is the more serious of the two. So it is the one Paul tackles in the development of his argument for the need we all have of the Christian gospel.
Romans 1:18-20 contains three important concepts, which together explain why the wrath of God against men and women is justified. The first is wrath itself. It is being revealed from heaven against the ungodly, Paul says. The second is the suppression of the truth about God by human beings, a point picked up and developed more fully in verses 21-23. The third idea is God’s prior revelation of Himself to those very people who suppress the truth about Him. These concepts need to be studied in inverse order, however. For when they are considered in that order – revelation, suppression, and wrath – they teach that God has given a revelation of Himself in nature sufficient to lead any right-thinking man or woman to seek Him out and worship Him, but that, instead of doing this, people suppress this revelation. They deny it so they don’t have to follow where it leads them. It is because of this willful and immoral suppression of the truth about God by human beings that the wrath of God comes upon them.
Revelation of God in Nature: It’s important to begin this study with some important definitions and distinctions. First, a definition: natural revelation means what it sounds like, namely, the revelation of God in nature. It is sometime called “general revelation,” because it’s available to everybody. Natural revelation is distinguished from “special revelation,” which goes beyond it and is the kind of revelation we find in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the revelation of the Bible’s meaning of the minds of those who read it by the Holy Spirit. When Paul talks about knowledge of God made plain to human beings as he does in this text, it is the general or natural revelation, not a specific scriptural revelation that he has in mind.
The second concept that needs to be defined here is “knowledge of God.” This is necessary because we can use the words know or knowledge in different ways. (1) Awareness: To begin on the lowest level, when we say that we know something we can be saying only that we are aware of its existence. (2) Knowing about: Knowing about something goes a step further, because knowledge in this sense may be detailed, extensive, and important. (3) Experience: The word know can also be used to refer to knowledge acquired by experience. (4) Personal: The last kind of knowledge is the highest and most important level. It is what we would call personal knowledge, the kind of knowledge we can only have of God, of ourselves, or of any human being. When the Bible speaks of knowing God in a saving way, this is what it has in mind. It involves the knowledge of ourselves in our sin and of God in His holiness and grace. It involves the knowledge of what He has done for us in Christ for our salvation and actual coming to know and love God through knowing Jesus Christ. It involves head knowledge, but also involves heart knowledge. It expresses itself in piety, worship, and devotion. It is what Jesus was speaking of when He prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
In the context of our text, of the four senses mentioned it is basically awareness, or nature that reveals God in such a way that, even without the special revelation of God that we have in the Bible, all men and women are at least aware that God exists and that they should worship Him. This awareness of God will not save them. But it is sufficient to condemn them if they fail to follow nature’s leading, as they could and should do, and seek out the true God so revealed.
Eternal Power and Divine Nature: Paul is precise here as he explains what the natural revelation involves. It consists of two elements: first, “God’s eternal power” and, second, God’s “divine nature” (v. 20). The second means quite simply that there is a God. In other words, people have no excuse for being atheists. The first means that the God, whom they know to exist, is all-powerful. People know this by definition, since a god who is not all-powerful is not really God. We can express these two ideas philosophically by the term “Supreme Being.” “Being” (with a capital “B”) refers to God’s existence. “Supreme” denotes His ultimate power. What Paul is saying is that nature contains ample and entirely convincing evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being. God exists, and we know it. Therefore, when people subsequently refuse to acknowledge and worship God, the problem is not in God or in the lack of evidence for His existence but in our own irrational and resolute determination not to know Him.
It’s important to understand that the revelation of God in nature is the limited disclosure of God’s existence and supreme power. There is no revelation of His mercy, holiness, grace, love, or the many other things necessary for us to learn if we are to know God savingly. Still, we are not to think of this limited revelation as minimal, as if somehow its limited quality alone can excuse us. According to the Bible, this natural revelation of God, though limited, is nevertheless extensive and overwhelming in its force. God’s revelation of Himself in nature does not stop with the external evidence for His existence, power, wisdom, and kindness, but it has what can be called an internal or subjective element as well. That is, not only has God given evidence for His existence; He has also given us the capacity to comprehend or receive it – though we refuse to do so.
Suppressing the Truth: This brings us to the second point of Paul’s argument in this section of Romans, the point that justifies and leads to God’s wrath; it is the human rejection of the revelation God has given. Paul’s description of what people have done in regard to natural revelation is in the phrase “who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). Why do we do this? It’s because we prefer sin to that to which the revelation of God would take us.
If, as Paul maintains, the revelation of God in nature is fully adequate to condemn people who do not allow it to bring them to worship and serve this true God, how much more terrible and awful is the case of the vast numbers of people, particularly in our country, who have not only the natural revelation to lead them to God but also have the Bible and the proclamation of its truths in virtually every town and hamlet of our land and (by means of radio and television and social media) at almost any hour, “without excuse”? The people of Rome were without excuse, and they had nothing but nature. No Bible, no churches, no preachers! What about us who have everything? If we reject what God tells us, we are a thousand times more guilty. No excuse! “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).
Romans 1:18-20 Reflection Questions:
What is your opinion of the “wrath of God,” do you believe it still applies in today’s world as it did in the Old Testament days?
Why do you think this country has so many atheists?
Who do you know to invite to church?