A Commentary by John Stott
Romans. 1:18-32. 3). How is God’s wrath revealed?
The first answer to this question is that God’s wrath will be revealed in the future, at the end, in the judgement of the last day. There is such a thing as ‘the coming wrath’ (1 Thess. 1:10), and Paul calls Judgement Day ‘the day of God’s wrath’ (Rom. 2:5, 8; cf. 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22). Secondly, there is a present disclosure of God’s wrath through the public administration of justice, to which Paul will come later in his letter (13:4). But this is not in his mind here.
Thirdly, there is another kind of present disclosure of the anger of God, to which the apostle will devote the rest of Romans 1. It *is being revealed from heaven now*, he says (18), and he goes on to explain it by his terrible threefold refrain *God gave them over* (24, 26, 28). When we hear of God’s wrath, we usually think of ‘thunderbolts from heaven and earthly cataclysms and flaming majesty’, instead of which his anger goes ‘quietly and invisibly’ to work in handing sinners over to themselves. As John Ziesler writes, it ‘operates not by God’s intervention but precisely by his *not* intervening, by letting men and women go their own way’. God abandons stubborn sinners to their wilful self-centredness (Cf. Ps. 81:12; Ho. 4:17; Acts 7:42; 14:16), and the resulting process of moral and spiritual degeneration is to be understood as a judicial act of God. This is the revelation of God’s wrath from heaven (18).
Let me sum up our reflection thus far on the wrath of God. It is God’s settled and perfectly righteous antagonism to evil. It is directed against people who have some knowledge of God’s truth through the created order, but deliberately suppress it in order to pursue their own self-centred path. And it is already being revealed, in a preliminary way, in the moral and social corruption which Paul saw in much of the Greco-Roman world of his day, and which we can see in the permissive societies of ours.
In Paul’s exposition of the outworking of the wrath of God, he develops the same logical process of deterioration, according to the principle he has established in verses 18-20. That is, the general pattern of his argument recurs in verses 21-24, 25-27 and 28-31, ‘repeated with horrifying emphasis’.
First, he asserts the people’s knowledge of God: *they knew God (21), the truth of God (25), and the knowledge of God* (28).
Secondly, he draws attention to their rejection of their knowledge in favour of idolatry: *they neither glorify him as God nor gave thanks to him (21); they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator (25); they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God* (28).
Thirdly, he describes the reaction of God’s wrath: *he gave them over …to sexual impurity (24); to shameful lusts (26); and to a depraved mind* (28) leading to antisocial behaviour.
These are the three stages of the downward spiral of pagan depravity.