Romans 1:18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” (NASB)
Romans 1:18 “αποκαλυπτεται γαρ οργη θεου απ ουρανου επι πασαν ασεβειαν και αδικιαν ανθρωπων των την αληθειαν εν αδικια κατεχοντων.” (Stephanus’ Greek Text 1550)
Perhaps no attribute of God is more shunned by theologians, preachers and Christians nor is any Divine attribute more despised by the unbelieving culture than God’s wrath. I say this to underscore what the Apostle Paul emphasizes in the beginning part of his discussion of the Gospel in Romans 1:18 – namely the wrath of God. In this post I want to sketch out the meaning, theological-significance and life-practical importance of God’s wrath.
Understanding The Meaning Of God’s Wrath In Romans 1:18 And The Wider Biblical Material
The word Paul uses in Romans 1:18 to describe God’s wrath is the word “orge” (οργη). To grasp this word’s meaning, we will first consider the meaning of the word itself and then follow-up with what the remainder of the Old and New Testament has to teach on God’s wrath.
To begin with the meaning of “orge” in Romans 1:18, theologian James Leo Garrett in his Systematic Theology defines “orge” as follows:
“Orgē, meaning “wrath, anger, or indignation,” is the more generally used term and is to be found especially in Romans and in Revelation. Sometimes this wrath is specifically directed at unbelievers or the disobedient (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6). Law with its consequent disobedience brings forth wrath (Rom. 4:15), divine wrath expresses vengeance (Rom. 12:19), and such wrath can even be executed by civil rulers (Rom. 13:4c, 5). Elsewhere the reference is to future wrath to come (Matt. 3:7; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; Rom. 2:5, 8; 5:9).”
In Louw and Nida’s Greek Lexicon of Semantic Domains, the thrust of this word’s meaning is described as follows:
“Though the focal semantic element in ὀργή is punishment, at the same time there is an implication of God’s anger because of evil. Therefore, it is possible in some languages to translate this expression in Ro 3:5 as ‘God does not do wrong when he is angry and punishes us, does he?’”
One of the greatest expositors of the twentieth century, Donald Grey Barnhouse, preached a series of sermons on the book of Romans. In his sermon on Romans 1:18, he noted how the two leading Greek words in the Greek New Testament translated “wrath” deal with the heat of God’s anger or displeasure, and how it is dispensed against sin. One of those words (“thumos”) speaks of His wrath poured out in volume and immediacy, whereas our word in Romans 1:18 “orge” has to do with God’s displeasure released in a gradual fashion or retained until a later time.
As one surveys the over 180 Old and New Testament passages concerning God’s wrath and the various corresponding Hebrew and Greek words rendered by our English word “wrath”, the following insights come into view:
a. Over 30 places in the Old Testament depict God’s wrath as his displeasure expressed in fatherly discipline towards His people or as a broken-hearted husband toward and unfaithful wife. In 2 Chronicles 36:21 for instance we read: “but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy.” The Hebrew word translated “wrath” is ch-math (חֲמַת) and has a similar meaning to the Greek word discussed above. Not once do we find God’s wrath expressed in a capricious fashion in any of these instances or in all of the other contexts we find the concept of wrath in the Bible.
b. In at least 22 places in the Old Testament we find God’s wrath expressed as a King whose subjects (the nation of Israel) have committed treason against His holy character (see examples Joshua 22:20 and Psalm 2:12).
c. Nearly 20 places in the Old Testament find God expressing His wrath as the Holy Just Judge over the nations (for instance, Jeremiah 10:10).
d. As we survey the remainder of the Old Testament, one surprisingly finds God’s wrath as a motivating attribute in prompting people to seek His overtures of grace in mercy. In 11 spots we find God’s wrath as a black cloth highlighting His true desire to show mercy (examples are Isaiah 63:3,5; Jeremiah 32:37). In 17 places God gives ample warning to people to repent and turn from their wickedness as well as how they can clearly avoid His wrath (such examples are 2 Chronicles 19:10 and Ezekiel 5:13,15).
e. One major category of God’s wrath that gradually develops throughout the Old Testament and tends to be the dominate focal point of God’s wrath in the New Testament is the final or eschatological wrath He will pour out at final judgment. Old Testament examples of eschatological wrath are found in Zephaniah 1:15, 18 and New Testament passages involving New Testament wrath entail such texts as Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7; 21:23; John 3:36; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:19 and at least a dozen passages in the Book of Revelation.
f. As a final observation on the meaning of the word wrath in the Biblical material, we discover that the New Testament envisions law enforcement as a Divinely ordained means of carrying out God’s justice or wrath in a temporal sense in such passages as Romans 12:9; 13:4 and Hebrews 11:27.
There could be other comments made, but the sampling of above texts should suffice to help us see the various ways in which God’s wrath is expressed in the Biblical material. To summarize what is going on in Romans 1:18 with respect to the word “wrath”, we could classify Paul’s reference as having to do with present wrath that, if unheeded, will find connection to that ultimate wrath of God in the final judgment. To offer a plain definition of “wrath” as read in Romans 1:18 and other similar texts, God’s wrath is: “God’s measured, holy and justified aggression against mankind’s unholy and unjustified sin.”
Theologically understanding God’s wrath in relationship to His attributes and actions
With the Biblical and exegetical material above, how do we fit God’s wrath in our overall understanding of God Himself? The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 1304, has the following to say about God’s wrath:
“In the total biblical portrayal the wrath of God is not so much an emotion or angry frame of mind as it is the settled opposition of His holiness to evil. Accordingly, the wrath of God is seen in its effects, in God’s punishment of sin in this life and in the next. These inflictions include pestilence, death, exile, destruction of wicked cities and nations, hardening of hearts, and the cutting off of the people of God for idolatry or unbelief. The day of wrath is God’s final judgment against sin, his irrevocable condemnation of impenitent sinners.”
Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology sheds particular light on why Paul is including God’s wrath in Romans:
“The whole argument of the Apostle in his Epistle to the Romans is founded on the principle that justice is a divine attribute distinct from benevolence. His argument is: God is just. All men are sinners. All, therefore, are guilty, i.e., under condemnation. Therefore no man can be justified, i.e., pronounced not guilty, on the ground of his character or conduct. Sinners cannot satisfy justice. But what they could not do, Christ, the Eternal Son of God, clothed in our nature, has done for them. He has brought in everlasting righteousness, which meets all the demands of the law. All those who renounce their own righteousness, and trust to the righteousness of Christ, God justifies and saves.
When we think of God’s wrath, it truly is His justice in action. God’s just and righteous wrath is the negative expression of goodness in hatred of whatever opposes or tramples upon His righteous character. If we think of God’s wrath as a counterpart opposite to love, God’s love is His positive expression of goodness that supports that which is in lines with His righteous character.
God’s attributes all hang together and function together like a perfect orchestra. Theologians often refer to what is Divine simplicity, which means that God and His attributes are one-in-the same. If you monkey around in trying to alter any of God’s attributes, you no-longer have the God of the Bible.
Illustrating how God’s attributes function together like One, Perfect Orchestra
In orchestral music, when a composer wants to enrich the music, the component of “counter-point” will be added resulting in two different melodies coming together into one harmonic whole. One fine example of “counterpoint” is in the following link to Mozart’s “The D. Major Quintet”. Thankfully, the following video link has helpful colors and arrows to aid the listener in identifying the concept of counterpoint here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQbxsGtyc2g.
If one listens to such awe inspiring music (whether Mozart or the musical scores of the Star Wars movies), the richness of such music will include this element of counterpoint. When we focus on the God of sacred scripture, God is the quintessential Perfect Being that includes uninterrupted counterpoint among all His attributes. If God did not have wrath among His attributes, we would have a God that loves everything: including sin, injustice and unrighteousness. God’s wrath, we could say, is the counterpoint to His love. The moment we omit wrath, we omit God! Why? Since God is His attributes, we cannot avoid doing away with the Biblical conception of God. Just as unthinkable it would be to eliminate God’s love and expect there to remain the Biblical God, so it is with love’s counterpoint attribute of wrath.
Life-practical considerations of the wrath of God for today
We have looked at the meaning of God’s wrath in Romans 1:18 and the wider Biblical material as well as the theological significance of God’s wrath. In this final segment of today’s post, we want to draw our discussion to a close by consider the applicability of God’s wrath to our lives.
First, we need to understand how God’s wrath aids in understanding the urgency of the great commission in sharing the Gospel. The Apostle Paul doesn’t hold off mentioning God’s wrath until the end of Romans, instead, wrath is the first thing mentioned in the main body of Paul’s theological exposition of the Gospel. If one were to outline Romans 1:18-2:4 (which represents Paul’s first leg of arguments in showing why people need the Gospel), we could offer the following:
I. God’s Warning From Heaven. Romans 1:18
II. General Truths Everyone Knows. Romans 1:19-20
A. God’s power or “omni-attributes”.
B. God’s character or “moral attributes, like goodness, holiness, wrath.”
III. Great Crisis Impacting Everyone. Romans 1:21-2:3
A. Preference of things over God. 1:21-24
B. Preference of lies to truth. 1:25-26a
C. Preference of man’s plans to God’s purpose. 1:26b-28
D. Preference of their own destruction to God’s best. 1:29-2:3
IV. God’s remedy you must receive. Romans 2:4
If Paul did not include God’s wrath in his presentation of the Gospel, it would not make sense why the Gospel is such good news. After all, what are we “saved from”? Romans 5:9-10 plainly states that we are saved from God’s wrath. Thus, wrath helps us to better understand the urgency of the great commission.
Secondly, God’s wrath and the pressure it places on a man’s moral sense to turn about from their course of persistent sin points us to God’s mercy. As we saw already in the survey of the above Biblical texts on wrath, many texts feature God’s wrath as a backdrop to put into sharp relief His ultimate desire to see men repent. Passages such as John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 are great texts on the mercy and grace of God. However, those verses appear as diamonds in contexts where the black silk cloth of God’s wrath is pressing the need to repent, believe and be saved. If anything, the wrath of God highlights for those whose hearts are opening to the truth the other attributes of God (such as mercy, love, grace). As we noted already, we cannot conceive of God’s attributes as isolated from one another.
As a final point of application, God’s fair warnings of wrath show us how just and loving He truly is towards those who otherwise do not deserve His grace. Warnings are not intended to harm, but help. If God’s wrath were not being revealed from heaven at this current time, man could have an excuse. Luke writes in Acts 14:16-17 “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; 17 and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
God is giving space at this current time. Moreover, God’s wrath was poured out on His Son to secure the safe harbor for sinners to flee to in what will be the ultimate wrath to come (Romans 5:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:10). In such texts as these, we understand God demonstrating His love. Again, if we didn’t have God’s wrath, the Gospel wouldn’t make sense.
Today we took a closer look at God’s wrath in Romans 1:18. We first saw how it is developed in Romans 1:18 and the wider Biblical witness through a combination of word studies and the Biblical material. We suggested the following meaning of wrath: “God’s measured, holy and justified aggression against mankind’s unholy and unjustified sin.” Secondly, we explored how God’s wrath is theological significant in light of His other attributes, His character and the overall Biblical portrayal of God. Lastly, we considered some life-practical ramifications of God’s wrath, noting how it adds urgency to evangelism, highlights God’s other attributes like mercy and makes sense of the Gospel. May we in the church be not ashamed of God’s wrath. May we compassionately and honestly include this important attribute of God in our conversations with people about Him. As we grow in our walk with God, may we praise Him for His salvation in saving those who believe, as a result of His grace, from the wrath to come. As theologian R.C Sproul has noted in times past: “We are saved from God, by God, for God.”