A Commentary by John Stott
In general the wrath of God is directed against evil alone. We get angry when our pride has been wounded; but there is no personal pique in the anger of God. Nothing arouses it except evil, and evil always does.
More particularly, Paul writes that God’s wrath is being revealed *against all the godlessness (asebeia) and wickedness (adikia) of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness* (18). According to J.B.Lightfoot, *asebeia* is ‘against God’ and *adikia* ‘against men’. Further, ‘the first precedes and entails the second: witness the teaching of this chapter’. Scripture is quite clear that the essence of sin is godlessness. It is the attempt to get rid of God and, since that is impossible, the determination to live as though one had succeeded in doing so. ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (3:18). The converse is also true. The essence if goodness is godliness, to love him with all our being and to obey him with joy.
God’s wrath is directed, however, not against ‘godlessness and wickedness’ *in vacuo*, but against the godlessness and wickedness of those people *who suppress the truth by their wickedness (adikia* again). It is not just that they do wrong, though they know better. It is that they have made an *a priori* decision to live for themselves, rather than for God and others, and therefore deliberately stifle any truth which challenges their self-centredness.
What ‘truth’ has Paul in mind? He tell us in verses 19-20. It is that knowledge of God which is available to us through the natural order. For *what may be known about God* (and what is knowable to finite, fallen creatures like us is inevitably limited) is nevertheless *plain* or open. And the reason it is plain is that God has taken the initiative and has *made it plain*. How? Verse 20 explains. It is that ever *since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature* (which together constitute something of his ‘glory’, 23) – *have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made*. In other words, the God who in himself is invisible and unknowable has made himself both visible and knowable through what he has made. The creation is a visible disclosure of the invisible God, an intelligible disclosure of the otherwise unknown God. Just as artists reveal themselves in what they draw, paint and sculpt, so the Divine Artist has revealed himself in his creation.
This truth of revelation through creation is a regular theme of Scripture. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, and ‘the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Ps. 19:1; Is.6:3). The Job who had confessed that hitherto he had only ‘heard’ of Yahweh, finally affirmed that through the ingenuity of the natural order his eyes had ‘seen’ him (Jb. 37-41; 42:5). For the living God who made all things, as Paul proclaimed to his pagan audience in Lystra, ‘has not left himself without testimony’, but has shown his kindness to the human race by his gifts of rain and crops, abundant food and overflowing joy (Acts 14:14ff. ; cf. Mt. 5:45; Acts 17:22ff.).
Because Romans 1:19-20 is one of the principal New Testament passages on the topic of ‘general revelation’, it may be helpful to summarize how ‘general’ differs from ‘special’ revelation. God’s self-revelation through ‘what has been made’ has four main characteristics. First, it is ‘general’ because made to everybody everywhere, as opposed to ‘special’ because made to particular people in particular places, through Christ and biblical authors. Secondly, it is ‘natural’ because made through the natural order, as opposed to ‘supernatural’, involving the incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of the Scriptures. Thirdly, it is ‘continuous’ because since the creation of the world it has gone on ‘day after day…night after night’ (Ps. 19:2), as opposed to ‘final’ and finished in Christ and in Scripture. And fourthly it is ‘creational’, revealing God’s glory through creation, as opposed to ‘salvific’, revealing God’s grace in Christ.
The conviction that God reveals himself through the created universe is still meaningful to us in the twentieth century. Although the five so-called ‘classical’ arguments for the existence of God, formulated by Thomas Aquinas in his *Summa* in the thirteenth century, are no longer in vogue, Christians still believe that God’s power, skill and goodness are displayed in the beauty and balance, intricacy and intelligibility of the universe, as scientists keep on probing it.
For example, after the satellite detection of the birthpangs of the universe was announced to the American Physical Society in April 1992, an anonymous *Guardian* contributor wrote: ‘It is difficult to know what the appropriate reaction to such mind-expanding discoveries should be, except to get down on one’s knees in total humility and give thanks to God or Big Bang or both, for cunningly contriving to allow this infinitesimal part of the universe called Earth to be bestowed with something called Air’. At the opposite end of the size scale, a consultant surgeon wrote to me a few years ago: ‘I am filled with the same awe and humility when I contemplate something of what goes on in a single cell as when I contemplate the sky on a clear night. The coordination of the complex activities of the cell in a common purpose hits the scientific part of me as the best evidence for the Ultimate Purpose.’ Anthropologists have also found a worldwide moral sense in human beings so that, although conscience is of course to some extent conditioned by culture, it still testifies to everybody everywhere both that there is a difference between right and wrong, and that evil deserves to be punished (32).
Paul ends his statement with the words: *so that men are without excuse* (20). This shows that what he has been asserting is ‘natural revelation’ and not ‘natural theology (or religion)’. The latter expresses the belief that it is possible for human beings through nature to come to know God, and that therefore, as the way to God, creation is an alternative to Christ. Some people base this belief on Romans 1, especially on the expression that *they knew God* (21) and that they possessed *the knowledge of God* (28). But there are degrees to the knowledge of God, and these phrases cannot possibly refer to the full knowledge of him enjoyed by those who have been reconciled to him through Christ. For what Paul says here is that through general revelation people can know God’s power, deity and glory (not his saving grace through Christ),. and that this knowledge is enough not to save them but rather to condemn them, because they do not live up to it. Instead, they *suppress the truth by their wickedness* (18), so that they *are without excuse*(20). It is against this wilful human rebellion that God’s wrath is revealed.