Right outside Nairobi, Kenya there is a park called Hell’s Gate National Park. I’ve had the privilege of visiting this park to do some hiking and climbing, and during my time there I asked one of our guides why it was named Hell’s Gate. He told me it’s named such because there is a hot geyser down in the very middle of the park that’s so hot you can’t touch the water. It’s as if the park sits right on the surface of hell itself which is why the water is so insanely hot. He asked our group if we wanted to see the geyser, and of course we immediately said yes, so he led the way and off we went. As we were nearing the geyser I noticed we weren’t gaining elevation, but were losing it, we were descending to the lowest point of the park till there were cliffs towering above us on all sides. We kept descending until we finally came to the spot. And there about 10-15 feet in front of us was the geyser. It was similar to sitting right in front of a hot fire and having to turn your face away from the flame because it hurts your eyes and face so much…but this was a hike and there was no fire near us, it was just a few little holes in the ground filled with boiling hot water. It was bizarre to say the least, to descend like that, with each step getting hotter and hotter until we reached our destination.
I begin with this because in we’ve now come to the point in Romans 1 where Paul leads us on a similar hike. And here in v18 Paul begins his first large argument of Romans. He’s introduced himself, he’s outlined his reasons for writing to them, and he’s given his main theme: the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes and in this gospel God’s righteousness is revealed and received by faith alone. Now, it might surprise us, but Paul doesn’t explain or expand on this gospel any further until 3:21, that’s two whole chapters later. Instead what does he do? Paul descends, step by step, into the dreadful nature of man’s sin and God’s wrath against us because of our sin. That this first large section beginning here in 1:18 continues all the way to 3:20 has led many to wonder why Paul spends so much time describing sin. Why spend so much ink describing the bad news of our fallen sinful condition? Well, the answer is clear I think. Paul spends all this ink painting such a bleak picture of who we are so that the glory of the gospel he describes later stands out in a brilliant contrast. Or in other words, before Paul explains how the gospel can save us he explains why we need the gospel to save us, or before Paul explains how the gospel can save us he explains what we need to be saved from.
So Church, as we descend with Paul into the depths of the human condition I’d ask you to prepare yourself. Many disagree with Paul in these verses and do not believe we’re as bad or as sinful as he says we are here. The language he uses here is not just seen as counter cultural, I think our culture we call it ‘hate speech.’ But I’m convinced that we’ll only come to see the gospel as glorious, that we’ll only be motivated to share the gospel with others if we embrace the what these verses teach about who we truly are. So into the depths we go…
Truth Suppressed (v18)
Paul has just got done telling us the gospel, which is the power of God, reveals the righteousness of God. Well, we now find that’s not the only thing being revealed today. Since faith in Christ reveals the righteousness of God, how does God respond to those who reject His gospel, to those who reject His Son? v18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
The wrath of God, as I’m sure you can imagine, isn’t very popular today. There are many reasons for that we could go into, but one reason it’s so discarded is because many misunderstand it. Men and women know that they themselves can grow angry, very angry, furious even when they’re put in certain circumstances. Sometimes it takes a lot to get people into angry fits, while all it takes for others is to stub a toe. In those moments many people are shocked at how rageful they can become or they’re surprised at how uncontrolled they feel when they become deeply angry. Whether or not they would admit it, most people know that such outbursts aren’t just unhealthy, they know it’s out of bounds behavior they should seek to avoid. Now, most everyone has felt this in their lives before, its common to man to feel these emotions. But here’s the misunderstanding: when someone speaks of the wrath of God many people attribute that sense of a knee-jerk reactive rage or uncontrolled fury that we experience onto God and from attributing such wild emotions to God they then conclude God’s wrath to be something wrong in God, something out of bounds, or unbecoming of God’s character. Paul doesn’t follow this line of thinking, and we shouldn’t either.
What does he say here in v18? God’s wrath isn’t kindled for no reason, no. God’s wrath isn’t out of control rage, or God flying off the handle, no. God’s wrath is roused and revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man who in that unrighteousness suppresses the truth. In other words, while you and I get angry and all bent out of shape often over the wrong things, when God becomes wrathful God is always angry about the right things. His wrath is always just, it’s always the appropriate and correct response to sin. So we can say, God’s wrath is the “holy revulsion of His being against everything that contradicts His holiness.” And what could go against His holiness more than the suppression of His truth?
This word suppressed is an interesting one. It can be translated in many different ways but all the meanings point to a kind of continual and aggressive striving against the truth. Think of a gigantic spring or coil that requires all our strength to push it down. And while we’re exerting all our might to push this down the spring itself pushes back and resists our effort. This is what the heart of all mankind is like. We are not brought into this world neutral and we do not then grow either good or bad based on the circumstances we’re brought up in. Many believe that, many within the Church believe that, but the Bible doesn’t teach that. The Bible teaches that it is our very nature to take the truth of God and try our ‘darndest’ to press it down, fight against it, twist it, push it aside, explain it away, or force it out of our minds and out of our hearts where it won’t bother us anymore. We see this even in the first few pages of the Bible. In the beginning all things obeyed God as He did His marvelous work of creation. At God’s very word the sky, the sea, and the land; the birds, the fish, and the beasts; the mountains, the valleys, all creation was brought into existence by God and began working as God commanded. God then made man, male and female, and commanded man to live a certain way and what did man say? “No!” This is the essence of sin, the essence of ungodliness and unrighteousness. See how Paul makes a similar contrast in v16-17 against v18 of Romans 1. When sinners turn from sin and turn to Jesus Christ in faith as He is offered in the gospel, God responds by revealing and gifting His righteousness, that’s v16-17. But when sinners do not turn from sin, when sinners reject Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel, how does God respond? By revealing His wrath, that’s v18. And this wrath isn’t just a future reality, although it is (!), it’s being revealed here and now as God hands men and women over, allowing them to lose themselves in the sin they so crave. But notice v18 adds a detail, God’s wrath is revealed “…from haven…” This isn’t just a directional phrase telling us where God is. “…from heaven…” reminds us of the wide extent of His wrath. It’s no small thing when His majestic, all-seeing eyes are bent down in wrath. Everything and everyone under heaven that’s not under the gospel, is under His wrath.
Let’s pause for a brief moment and ask a question. ‘When you share the gospel with someone where do you begin?’ Do you begin telling others of the victory they can have over lives of defeat and purposelessness? Do you begin telling others of a great experience you had with God that they can have to? Or do you begin with the love of God, of His great plans He has for them? This isn’t where Paul begins. Don’t miss it…Paul, who’s eager to preach the gospel to them begins with “…the wrath of God is revealed…against all ungodliness and unrighteousness…” Now, we truly have victory in Christ, we truly have meaning and purpose in Christ, we truly experience a deep communion and fellowship with God in Christ, and God does have great plans for His people, yes and amen! We love these things. But Paul didn’t begin there, no, he begins with God’s wrath. Because over and above all else Paul’s concerned with man’s standing before God. He preaches a God-centered message not a man-centered message. Do we? Church, we can never depart from this and seek to be all bright and breezy in our message or evangelism for fear of offending people by speaking of God as a wrathful God. Everyone person we meet in this life is either under the grace of God or under the wrath of God, and if they’re under His wrath, are we going to begin telling them the truth by avoiding the one reality that damns them to hell forever? We must not be those who are eager to embrace v16-17 and embarrassed by v18. I fear, that if we don’t begin where Paul begins, our whole method, our whole ministry, our whole message will be off, and founded on the sand instead of the rock.
So Paul has begun with God’s wrath being revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man who suppresses His sacred truth. But, praise God, despite all our effort in suppressing God’s truth no one is ever completely successful. His truth always keeps pressing back up all around us. How so? That leads us to the next two verses where we see…
God Known (v19-20)
It is usually taught that only believers, only Christians, know God while unbelievers don’t know God. And it’s true, only believers know God in a saving sense. So how then, can v18 say the ungodly and unrighteous suppress the truth if they don’t know the truth? You can’t suppress something you don’t know. v19-20 answers this for us. Here we find that all men, even unbelievers, know God. How so? To what degree? v19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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.”
These verses teach what we call ‘General Revelation’ or ‘Natural Revelation.’ These terms mean just what their name implies. Through the world God has made, through nature, through creation, God truly reveals Himself. v19 states it and v20 clarifies it. First, we see God is a God who reveals Himself. Second, we see God reveals His invisible character (eternal power / divine nature) visibly. Third, God’s been revealing Himself like this since the creation of the world through the things that have been made. Fourth, God has revealed Himself in this way so clearly that all men are without excuse. But be careful here. Paul is not teaching that all men, whether they know it or not, can see evidence of God’s character in creation. These words go further than this. Paul’s teaching that all men, from Kansas to Kenya or Tampa to Tokyo, actually come to understand something about God’s existence and God’s nature from the world He’s made. And what all men understand about God is so clear and so plain that it leaves all men without excuse. This is why we’re all drawn to sunrises, to sunsets, to tall mountains, and to white beaches. Because the world itself cries out ‘I’ve been made! I’m not God, I shouldn’t be worshiped as God, only God is God.’ We believe this, that God reveals Himself truly yet generally through creation. But I wonder if you see the limitation to this? No one can learn how to be saved or how to glorify God by looking at a vast landscape or a beautiful sunset. No, to know how to be saved, to know how to glorify God we need more than general revelation, we need special revelation. We need Scripture for that.
Some say here, I’m sure you’ve heard it, maybe you’ve said it. ‘This isn’t fair, if someone never hears the gospel can they really be held accountable for denying it?’ Or this one’s just as common, ‘What about the innocent native who’s never heard or even had a chance to hear the gospel and be saved?’ See how Paul answers these objections. Everyone who’s ever existed, primitive peoples or populated cities, all men know that God exists, all men know that God is divine, all men know that God is different than us, that God is Creator, that God is infinitely powerful, and that on this God we are utterly dependent and to this God we are completely accountable. John Calvin would describe this idea as a sense within man that we all know from birth and he called it ‘sensus divinitatus’, or a sense of the divine. And Calvin would go on further to speak of all creation as a theater of God’s glory into which man is born and spends all his life.
Well, how does man respond to this knowledge, to this truth? Does man, from this inner built-in sense, praise and thank God for who He is and what He has done? No. Instead we suppresses this truth. So you see, if there really were an innocent native who died without hearing the gospel he’d surely be saved! But don’t you see, that can’t be a possibility because no men are innocent? And as God’s truth is suppressed His wrath is kindled and revealed.
As you can see this passage is incredibly important in helping us understand the world we live in. I remember as a new Christian encountering an atheist for the first time in one of my college philosophy classes and so struggling as to how someone could deny that God exists at all! This text helped me greatly. Atheists claim God doesn’t exist, that there’s no evidence adequate enough to believe in god, and that we’re all just grown up germs, a wonderful surprise in the evolutionary timetable. That’s what the atheist says. But Church, do you see what Paul says? What God says? Atheists believe the problem is intellectual, that there’s a lack of evidence. Paul disagrees and says the problem is deeper than the intellect. The atheist’s problem is not that they don’t know God, the problem is that they not only know God, they hate God, they wish God didn’t exist because if God didn’t exist they could live as they so desire and never feel bad about it. Conclusion? For this suppression, there is no excuse.
But maybe some of you still think this is unfair. Maybe others of you don’t think it’s unfair but you feel a rub here and would surely like to hear more reasons as to why all this is so. Well, as v19-20 end and v21 begins it’s as if Paul anticipates such objections and gives another large reason why God’s wrath is revealed.
God Rejected (v21)
“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.”
“They knew God.” The people referred to in the word ‘they’ are those in v18 who suppress the truth in ungodliness and unrighteousness, those in v19-20 who have learned from creation and understood God’s eternal power and divine nature and are without excuse. Why are they without excuse? Now we see more. They ‘knew God’ – not in a saving sense but in a general sense – they knew God and…what? Notice what follows in v21 isn’t a description of what they did but they refused to do? Two things are mentioned. First, they knew God but refused to honor God as God, and second, they refused to give thanks to Him. Meaning although they knew God they didn’t acknowledge God to be God but rather hated God for being God, so much so that they sought to replace the worship of God with the worship of self and/or the worship of created things. Although they knew God they didn’t give God the gratitude they knew He deserves. So for doing this what happened? They became futile, or foolish in mind and their hearts were darkened. From such folly and darkening all manner of wickedness began to flow forth…but we’ll see that next week.
Let me say this to conclude. A Christian who knows this section of Romans should:
First, look around! The glories of our God are revealed to us in the world He has made. Get up early and watch the sun rise, get outside and watch the sunset, go climb mountains, play in the seas, and enjoy the glory of God in all creation. It is indeed the theater of God’s glory.
Second, a Christian who knows this section of Romans should never be surprised, not even in the slightest, that the world is the way it is. And more so, a Christian who knows this section of Romans should never be surprised, not even in the slightest, that their own heart is the way it is. So, what’s your posture or reaction to seeing sin in the world or watching sin on the news? This text shows it can’t be one of surprise (I can’t believe it!) or superiority (I’d never do that!). No, Romans 1 is universal. Sin’s not just out there with ‘them.’ Sin’s in here with us too.
Church, at the center of every person who has lived, lives now, or will ever live, there is a deadness and a darkness. So thick that only one thing is powerful enough to penetrate and bring life and light. The power of God. Where is the power of God found? The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
 Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 102.
 Moo, 110.
 John Murray, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), 35.
 Kent R. Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1991), 33.
 R.C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 39.
 J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 35.
 Moo, Romans, 113.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, vol. 1 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 325.
 Lloyd-Jones, 333.
 Lloyd-Jones, 341.
 Sproul, Romans, 39.
 Moo, Romans, 116.
 Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 26.
 Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 317.
 Moo, Romans, 118.