“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….” (Romans 1:18, ESV).
I wrote that I was reading Adolf Schlatter’s commentary on Romans, and I was struck by his handling of this verse. I read his comments a few days ago, and then this morning, separately, read Romans 1 again. In the back of my mind were Schlatter’s comments, and as I read this morning, they made sense.
I used to take this verse, and the rest of the chapter, to mean that God was showing wrath towards humanity. This probably wouldn’t surprise most unbelievers, because they think that’s what “fundamentalist” Christians believe; and when they use the label “fundamentalist” they throw in groups of people who are, in fact, not at all fundamentalists. But the churches I grew up in were gracious bodies led by gracious (and somewhat iconoclastic) pastors. They preached about wrath and hell and God’s final judgment; but this was balanced with preaching about the love of God for all humanity (in high school, I couldn’t figure out why we were stereotyped as Christ-haunted, Bible-thumping killjoys—the people I went to church with weren’t like that).
How has God revealed his wrath? I used to think (like most people) that it was in the “acts of God,” the cataclysms and disasters that rocked the earth with no warning; and in wars and depressions—the man-made catastrophes. I would read these into Romans, as if I were instead reading Revelations—the “Revealing” there was the revealing here. Yet, at the same time, I came up against Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. This puts two things at odds: Active judgment vs. active salvation. How can you have both?
The New Testament makes clear that, for the most part, God is not now actively judging the earth—that’s a future event. He is now at work saving rather than condemning humanity. Yet his wrath is also being revealed. What can that mean? If “the day of God’s wrath” is an unknown, future day—if Christ is not condemning, if God is not willing men to perish—if the time for judging the world of its sins has not yet come—then how is God’s wrath being revealed?
Paul, as it turns out, seems to have a somewhat different view of how God’s wrath acts now than I had. First, God’s wrath is shown in that God “gave [humanity] up . . . to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies. . . .” (Rom. 1:24). He further “gave them up to dishonorable passions” (1:26) and “to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28). This isn’t just about sexual immorality, though that’s where Paul starts; a debased and dishonorable mind includes covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, slander, gossip, pride, ruthlessness—even disobedience to parents. When God took away his restraining hand and allowed us to wade (not sink; we were choosing to go there) deeper into sin, he revealed his wrath. And men and women received the natural—but also supernatural—fruit of their sins. In letting us have our own way, letting us give free rein to the cruelty and the greed that lurked in us, God was judging the world with a punishment greater than the natural calamities that we call “acts of God.”
But God was also showing his wrath toward unrighteousness in another way. He showed it at the Cross, through the death of his Son. There, God showed what he thinks of unrighteousness. He showed that he hates it; that he will do whatever it takes to get rid of it. The Triune God did not balk at taking sin upon himself (as the Son) so that he might deal it the blow that would kill it. This is the second, and the greatest, way in which God’s wrath was revealed from heaven against unrighteousness. Grace shows what God thinks of sin: He hates it so much that he will do whatever it takes to save us from it. Any message about the wrath of God has to include the Cross as God’s act of wrath; a message that sees God’s wrath only as calamity now, and Hell in the afterlife, is telling only half the story.