A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 1:18-32. Depraved Gentile Society.
It is important that we grasp the connection between this section (‘The wrath of God’) and the last (‘The gospel of God’). In verses 16-20 the apostle develops an argument of sustained logic. He refers successively to the power of God (16), the righteousness of God (17), he wrath of God (18) and the glory of God in creation (19-20). Moreover, each statement he makes is linked to the preceding one by the Greek conjunction *gar* or *dioti*, meaning ‘for’ or ‘because’. Let me try to clarify the stages of the argument by engaging Paul in dialogue.
Paul: *I am not ashamed of the gospel* (16a). Q: Why not, Paul? Paul: *Because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes* (16b). Q: How so, Paul? Paul: Because *in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed*, that is, God’s way of justifying sinners (17). Q: But why is this necessary, Paul? Paul: Because *the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness* (18). Q: But how have people suppressed the truth, Paul? Paul: Because *what may be known about God is plain to them…. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities… have been clearly seen…* (19-20).
One might, then, speak of a four fold self-revelation of God, although the vocabulary of revelation is not used consistently throughout. For the sake of theological clarity I will state these divine disclosures in the opposite order:
First, God reveals his glory (*his eternal power and divine nature*) in his creation (19-20).
Secondly, he reveals his wrath against the sin of those who suppress their knowledge of the Creator (18).
Thirdly, he reveals his righteousness (his righteous way of putting sinners right with himself) in the gospel (17).
Fourthly, he reveals his power in believers by saving them (16).
A careful study of the devastating exposure of Gentile decadence which follows has suggested to some scholars that Paul was influenced both by the story of Adam’s fall in Genesis and by the Jewish critique of pagan idolatry in the book of Wisdom.
Professor Morna Hooker has written that Paul was portraying ‘man’s sin in relation to its true biblical setting – the Genesis narrative of the Creation and the Fall’. Others have taken this up, and it is not difficult to find parallels which could be claimed as reminiscences. For example, like Genesis 1-3, Paul refers to *the creation of the world* (20) and to the classification of its creatures into *birds and animals and reptiles* (23); he uses the vocabulary of *glory* and ‘image’ or ‘likeness’ (23); he alludes to the human being’s knowledge of God (19, 21), the resolve to become *wise* (22), the refusal to remain a dependent creature (18, 21), the exchange of God’s *truth* for Satan’s *lie* (25), and the understanding that rebellion *death* (32: cf.5:12ff.). From this it seems clear that Paul was writing against the general biblical background of creation and fall, although the case has not been proved that he was intentionally re-telling the Adam’s story.
The case is stronger that Paul was alluding to the apocryphal book of Wisdom, especially to its chapters 13-14, which is a Hellenistic Jewish polemic against pagan idolatry, Sanday and Headlam provide a table, whose columns draw attention to possible parallels between Wisdom and Romans. Certainly the Wisdom chapters contain references to the human failure to know God from his works (‘from the good things that are seen they gained not power to know him that is’); to the sin and folly of idolatry (‘they… called them Gods which are works of men’s hands’); to the fact that ‘ the worship of those nameless idols is a beginning and cause and end of every evil’, including ‘the confusion of sex’, ‘disorder in and various social ills’, and to the conclusion that those who fail to find God in his works are not to be excused’. But these similarities are picked out from a mass of inferior material, and are not close enough to suggest conscious borrowing. It seems likely that Paul was drawing more on Old Testament prophets’ criticism of idolatry than on the book of Wisdom. I agree with Godet that there is a huge difference between Wisdom’s ‘tame and superficial explanation of idolatry’ and Paul’s profound psychological analysis.
In returning now to Paul’s text, we are confronted by his statement that *the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all…human wickedness* (18)
The very mention of God’s wrath is calculated nowadays to cause people embarrassment and even incredulity. How can anger, they ask, which Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount equated with murder (Mt. 5:22), and which Paul identified as a manifestation of our sinful human nature and as incompatible with our new life in Christ (Gal. 5:19ff.; Eph 4:31; Col. 3:8) possibly be attributed to the all-holy God? Indeed, reflection on the wrath of God raises three questions, about its nature, objects and outworking.
Tomorrow. 1). What is the wrath of God?
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.