In the early 19th Century, America had a vast new track of land to explore. After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, the area known as the United States doubled in size. Lewis and Clark famously explored the region, and soon thereafter, the people began migrating west. But the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was not just about extending the ideas of America westward, it was about creating a better society throughout all of the Americas – that is North and South America. As one historian wrote, the idea “generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.” (1)
That is, many, but not all, wanted the United States to expand her “Christian” influence throughout the western hemisphere.
On a far lesser scale, the truth is that as individuals, we all want something similar. We may not be the ones to take a message or belief beyond a particular area or group of people, but if we believe enough in something, we hope that the idea will spread elsewhere. This is certainly true of Christianity, but it is also true about a good recipe, a book, television program, a sports team, etc. We think that what we like should be liked and desired by others.
But we do not all subscribe to the same ideas. And some of the ideas that are made manifest can be harmful. We are witnessing that truth right now in our country today. Ideas that were made manifest are being challenged, and literally overthrown. Some of that may be healthy. Some of it is not. But the key is from where do the ideologies originate?
In Romans 1.18-32, Paul speaks to a culture whose influence covered much of the known world at the time. But particularly in Rome, what was made manifest was in direct defiance of God, the one who made Himself manifest for the good of man.
We see that God’s wrath was made manifest as well. But His wrath is not like our wrath. God’s righteousness and wrath are perfectly intertwined as are His love and justice. And thus, our series, And Justice for All, is not only a true statement of God, but a necessary one as well.
If we are not careful, we think of God’s justice and wrath as necessary for some (particularly others) and not for ourselves. That truth is evident in our passage today as we shall see.
So, what does Paul say about this wrath? When will God make it known? And what are we to do in the meantime? Well, this passage will provides plenty of answers to those questions and more.
Righteousness vs Wrath?
As we begin to look at this passage, we cannot overlook the word “for” in verse 18. In fact, this verse is the third consecutive verse that begins with the word “for.” Is that significant? Yes, Paul is making a very logical argument which we will fail to see if we do not track backwards.
In verse 16, Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which he said he was eager to preach in verse 15. In verse 17, Paul wrote that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God, or we might say makes God’s righteousness manifest (there’s that word), and allows us to live by faith. Then in verse 18, Paul ties that idea together with the wrath of God being revealed (made manifest).
Some may argue that moving from God’s righteousness in verse 17 to God’s wrath in verse 18 would be better served with the word “but” to help show the contrast between righteousness and wrath. However, for God, no contrast exists. We may “lose our temper” and want “our wrath” to be felt, but anything we do pales in an analogy to God. And although it is easiest to understand God in human terms, we must not limit God to our human understandings.
But regardless of what we may be able to fully understand or not, God has revealed Himself. That is, God has shown Himself, and He wants us to make Him, and particularly His glory, manifest in all of the world.
But this passage shows that people will reject Him, and thus they will reject us, even as they rejected Paul. But our responsibility is to make God manifest, which begins with not being ashamed of His gospel, and His power, and His salvation, which leads to righteousness in us or wrath against us. And thus, we have the word “for” tying these verses together so strongly.
Verse 18 mentions that God’s wrath is revealed against all unrighteousness. God is not ok with some types of evil and sin; He opposes all of it equally. All evil, and all sin, deserve His wrath. That is why this series is called “And Justice for All.” We will all receive justice based upon our merits. And our merits all require God’s wrath to be fully experienced by each one of us individually. However, because of God’s mercy, Jesus has taken that wrath upon Himself for those who believe. Thus, although we ALL merit God’s wrath, the salvation made possible by the power of God and made manifest by the gospel, delivers those who are found righteous to God, because of Jesus, and live their lives by faith, accordingly.
But for those who do not respond to God’s gift of salvation, God’s wrath is what is manifest. In fact, what does salvation mean? It means something exists from which we must be saved. That something is the wrath of God. And God, in His righteousness must respond to the depravity of mankind. And so, He has, by His love. He responded with the offer through the cross, and He responds with the reality of His wrath for those who reject that offer.
But you might ask, “what about people who have not heard?” Verses 19 and 20 make it evident that God has made Himself known. Again, He has made Himself manifest to everyone. You cannot look at the mountains or walk through a forest or sail on the ocean or look across the fields and miss that something or someone made that true. (Philosophers back to at least Plato agreed on this.) That is what Paul is saying here. Paul is NOT saying that this basic knowledge is enough for salvation. Salvation requires faith in Jesus, as Paul will make clearly much later in his argument. But some basic knowledge of God is possible for everyone. As verse 20 says, everyone is without excuse.
The Tables Are Turned
The problem is that people may know, but they do not recognize. As verse 25 intimates, people possess the truth of God, but they would rather believe a lie. People know of God, but do not want to know Him. People do not give glory to God, and so their sins compound. That is the truth for all of us. The truth is that many people do not want to acknowledge God – we might say that want Him to “unreveal” (or un-manifest Himself) and control their own destiny. We can find ourselves thanking God, and praise Him, or we will find ourselves drifting further from Him. Inevitably, we must make a choice – righteousness over wrath or wrath over righteousness. Paul shows this clearly beginning in verse 21.
Notice the wording and the progression in verses 21-27.
In verses 21-23, what they knew, they rejected and thus became futile in their thinking. They believe they know best, but instead they become fools. They had the opportunity to “honor” and “give thanks” to God (v. 21), but instead “exchanged” that opportunity to “honor” man, birds, animals, and creeping things. I believe Paul is intentional in this order. People will not worship God, so they worship the prize creation (man), and/or if they can’t or won’t worship man, they will worship birds (which at least can fly), then animals (a step below man), and then the lowest of creatures (those that crawl on the ground). What an exchange is made! Yes, they consider themselves wise, but have shown themselves to be fools.
In verse 25, Paul summarizes these thoughts by saying rather than worship the Creator, they have chosen to worship the creature. Paul is so appalled by this, he has to stop for a moment of praise in the midst of writing about this to praise God. He then concludes with an affirmative “Amen.”
Then, in verses 26-27, Paul writes a third exchange takes place – they exchange natural relations for unnatural relations. This part entailed some very disturbing research for me this week. I will not share much here, but homosexuality was very prevalent in ancient Rome. In fact, 14 of the first 15 emperors practiced homosexuality. We might better state that they were bisexual – engaging in sexual activity with both males and females, but nonetheless, the practice of homosexuality was very pervasive.
Many will argue today that the word natural means, “against the norm,” and put that meaning into the context of the society. Thus, they argue, that since our society is beginning to be open to different understandings of relationships and even gender-identity, that these types of relationships should no longer be considered unnatural. But Paul was addressing a society that was (likely) more engaged in this type of behavior (and worse) than we are. And he called it unnatural. It is not unnatural because of what man thinks, it is unnatural because of God’s design. We can even see this in the anatomical features of a male and female.
Now, before I turn to the last couple of verses, I need to answer a question I posed earlier. When does God’s wrath take place? Well, according to Paul, it already was taking place, and therefore it still is. The wording about God’s wrath says “is revealed” which means it is in the present tense. But you might be thinking: “Andy, I don’t see it. I see people getting away with it” (with it being false worship, sexual immorality, etc.).
And my answer is, “Yes.” But notice a phrase Paul uses in verse 24, 26, and 28. The phrase is “God gave them up.” Certainly, the full wrath of God will come at a later point in time – the end of time as we know it. But the text says, “God gave them up” so He is active in the decision to do so. That does not mean that God forces others to do take part in sinning. It does mean that He is allowing sin to have its full influence – a destiny manifested apart from God in the present, and fully realize in the future. God has simply given them over to the “lusts of their hearts” (v. 24). In other words, God is allowing people to find their pleasure in their sin. But that pleasure is perceived pleasure. Sin has, and always brings, consequences. So, for now, God has given them over the natural consequences of these various sins, but one day, the fullness of the consequences will be realized.
The Tables Are Turned, Part 2
In the previous section, the tables were turned on the sinners. They exchanged God for some other idol – an image, a lie, or unnatural sex. So, God turned the table on the guilty by handing them over to their sins.
And as you sit here, the likelihood is that you may think that God’s wrath is deserved on all of the people who are guilty of such heinous acts of sin. But Paul is not done, and he shows that you and I are deserving of that wrath as well. See, as we read the text through verse 27, we may do so as a proud Jew would have done so. Jews were not to worship idols. They were not to tell lies, so why should they believe one. And homosexuality was a forbidden practice among the Jews. Thus, it was the Greeks (the Gentiles) who were guilty of such sin. In reading the first set of verses, the proud Jew would have looked with contempt on the Gentile who was making a mockery of God by committing such sins. Similarly, in the present, Christians look with disdain on how others can be so vile in their actions towards God.
But the passage is not done. The same wrath mentioned in verse 18 is also proper for those who commit the sins in verse 29-31. Paul breaks these sins into three different groups and some ideas within each group overlap a lot. But let me just point out a few. Do you envy others? Do you cause strife? Are you ever deceitful? Do you gossip? Are you boastful or full of pride (haughty)? (Before you answer that last one, remember what I just said about how Christians often look down on others!) Surely, many others are listed, and we might think of some of these as more sinful than others. But what is interesting is this list of 21 sins are social in nature – they are not sexual, and most are not against God. That is, these 21 sins are against other people. But Paul equates them all as vices which are sinful and thus, our relationship with God is broken – and we therefore deserve God’s wrath! Let me get specific. Do you show contempt to the actions around our country right now? Do you believe that you are better than “they” (whomever “they” are)? Well, you have at least backed up to the line, if not crossed that line of selfish pride. Remember, Jesus said to love others as you love yourself. How can you love the others – the “they” – that you currently think of with contempt? If you can’t love them, regardless of the sin, then according to this passage you are deserving of the same wrath God has made manifest.
Verse 28 has a word play within it. First, God gave them up to a debased mind. In other words, the people guilty of such sins tested the worth of God and rejected Him, so God gives them other to a mind that has failed the test.
Effectively, we can look back to verse 17 and see that if we choose to live by faith, then we please God. That is, we pass the test. But if we choose another path, we are foolish and faithless, which often leads to being heartless and ruthless (verse 31), and God will simply give us over to indulge ourselves with sin for now.
Ultimately, this entire passage is about two things – do we honor God and thank Him (v. 21)?
- Those who do, will long to live by faith and experience the righteousness of God.
- Those who do not will seek to honor something or someone else and experience the wrath of God.
Either way, God will be made manifest. He has already made Himself known. But will we choose to truly know Him? Because we cannot overlook that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). And that is why we need a savior. And that is why,…
Our JOURNEY letter for today is J – JESUS.
In Chapter 1, Paul shows his desires and his longing. He thanks God (v. 8) and desires to go to Rome (v. 10) because he longs to share the gospel there (v. 15). In other words, because of Jesus, Paul thanks God and wants to honor Him (v. 21). He desires to live a life of faith (v. 17) because the power of God – the gospel – has saved him (v. 16).
How do you respond? What are your desires? You may be thankful that you are not like some of the people described in today’s passage. But are you thankful you are not like them or are you thankful that God rescued you from becoming like them? If your thanksgivings are only because you are different, then you are still guilty of the pride and arrogance and slander and gossip, etc. found at the end of Chapter 1. But if you are thankful to God, then what are you doing to honor Him because He has lifted you out of the depths of sin through the blood of Jesus?
LOVE. Show God you love Him. Share His message with others. Yes, verses 24, 26, and 28, say that God gave them up, but it does not mean that He is not ready to redeem them. Perhaps, all that needs to happen is for you to share your faith, your story, your hope. Maybe, just maybe, that is all that is needed to help them turn from experiencing wrath to living in righteousness.
1) Merk, Frederick (1963). Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. Harvard University Press. ISBN978-0-674-54805-3.