I Am Not Ashamed of the Wrath of God (Romans 1.16-18)

27 Apr

In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote a very popular book, that even if you have never read it, you have surely heard of it. Mr. Carnegie was a popular writer and lecturer on things like self improvement, salesmanship, public speaking, and interpersonal skills. He put all of his knowledge in book form and called it How to Win Friends and Influence People. In his book, like in his courses, Dale Carnegie offers various words of wisdom about everything from making people like you to how to win people over to your opinion. For instance, his advice on making people like you:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in terms of the other person's interests.
  • Make the other person feel important - and do it sincerely.

He also describes how to win another person over to your way of thinking:

  • Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, "You're wrong."
  • Begin in a friendly way.
  • Get the other person saying "yes, yes" immediately.
  • Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  • Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
  • Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
  • Appeal to the nobler motives.

He also gives advice on how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment:

  • Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  • Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
  • Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  • Let the other person save face.
  • Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."
  • Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.

In short, Carnegie’s basic principles for handling people are:

  • Don't criticize, condemn or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Arouse in the other person an eager want.

So you can see why this book has been very popular over the years. It gives some very good principles about building good relationships with others.

I am guessing that the Apostle Paul never read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Aside from the obvious fact that Carnegie wrote his book about 1850 years after Paul was executed in Rome, my point is that if Dale Carnegie would have written the letter to the church in Rome, it would have begun much differently.

Paul writes this letter to the church in Rome, hoping to gain their support in his upcoming mission efforts to share the gospel in Spain (see Romans 15.23-24). In short, this is Paul’s attempt to win friends in Rome and to influence them to support him in his mission efforts to Spain. And judging by Carnegie’s standard, Paul fails miserably.

But, in fairness to Dale Carnegie, most of the preachers in America today have embraced his principles whole heartedly. The American Church has embraced what I call the “Brown Gospel.” UPS asks the question, “What can Brown do for you?” And that is the basic way we try to win people over to the gospel: “Look what God can do for you.” So, in Carnegie fashion, we smile and talk in terms of other people’s interests (this is how God can help you). We show respect for other people’s opinions and never say their religious beliefs are wrong. We are sympathetic to other’s ideas, desires, and wants. And we try our best to make the other person happy about doing what we are suggesting (this is why following Christ will be good for you). And we make the fault seem easy to correct (just pray this simple prayer). The American Gospel comes prepackaged with a “You should want this because it will improve your life” label. It is very Dale Carnegie friendly.

The Apostle Paul knew nothing of Dale Carnegie. He did begin his letter to the church in Rome with a few words of affirmation. He wrote about the quality of their faith which is so impressive that it has become known all over the world. And he does wish them grace and peace. But when he gets to the meat of the letter, when he begins to present the gospel that he is so eager to preach to both Greeks and non-Greeks, the gospel that he wants to preach all over the world, the gospel that he is not ashamed of, Paul falls off the Carnegie truck very quickly:

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” 18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1.17-19 NIV)

He starts off with the good news that a righteousness from God is revealed, but when he gets around to the reason we need this righteousness from God, he does not soft shoe the answer at all: “for the wrath of God is being revealed.”

Looking at the Text

For some reason, the NIV omits the “for” that begins verse 18. It should read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed…for, or because, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” It is really one continuous flow of thought. The reason God offers us a righteousness by faith is because of the wrath of God which is revealed against our sinfulness.

Before we address some of the questions that come to mind, let us make a few observations about the text itself. First, notice that the verb tense of “a righteousness is revealed” is the same as “the wrath of God is being revealed.” Most translations (ESV, NRSV, NASB) capture that by using the same “is revealed” while the NIV strives to make the present tense very clear regarding the wrath of God. This is not an exclusive future wrath issue. What that means is that this is not just about the final judgment of God but about the present judgment of God, just as the righteousness by faith is a present reality.

The second thing to note before we take up the primary focus of the text this morning is that the godlessness and wickedness of mankind suppress the truth by their wickedness. The “truth,” which will be further described in the rest of Romans but can be summarized in that God is the Creator of all things (Romans 1.19-20) but mankind preferred the glory of creation to the glory of the Creator (Romans 1.22-25). But what Paul is saying here is that mankind “suppresses” that truth, a word that literally means “to hold back.” The word is the same as the one used in Hebrews 10.23 where we are encouraged “to hold fast to our hope.” The root of the word is a sailing term, used to describe a ship holding fast to its charted course. So, to hold fast in one direction is to avoid going in another direction. Here, Paul uses the same term to describe those who are holding fast to the lies by their wickedness.

Perhaps two other verses from the New Testament will shed some light on this. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes of those who refuse to love the truth when he explains about the events of the end time:

9The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, 10and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2 Thessalonians 2.9-12 NIV)

The reason they refuse the truth is because they have delighted in wickedness. Their delight in their sin is holding back the truth. Or to put it another way, they are holding back the truth so that they can continue to delight in their sin. And this is exactly what Jesus said in His conversation with Nicodemus,

19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3.19-20 NIV)

When you prefer darkness, or wickedness or evil, you will suppress the light or hold back the light or hide from the light so that your wickedness will not be exposed.

The implications of this is that mankind’s primary problem is not a truth problem but a moral problem. The reason we reject the truth, the reason we suppress truth is because we are enjoying our sin too much. So, our enjoyment of sin causes us to hold back, or to suppress the truth.

Focal Text: I Am Not Ashamed Of The Wrath of God

But the focus of the passage today is definitely the whole concept of the “wrath of God.” I think it is very interesting that Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel and he is not ashamed of the wrath of God. About fifty years or so ago, the American church became very uncomfortable, if not ashamed, of the very idea of a wrathful God.  I am young enough that I grew up in a church that preached the love of God and looked back rather mockingly on the “hellfire, brimstone preachers” of earlier days. I don’t know exactly when it happened, it might have been in the 60s during the “love not war” movements, but somewhere the church got embarrassed about the wrath of God. We even had theologians who wrote things like “the wrath of God has no religious worth for Christians.”

But our modern angst about the wrath of God is not really all that modern. There was an early Christian leader by the name of Marcion who lived in Rome in the early second century. He died in 160 AD. He didn’t like the idea of a “wrathful God” either. He began to teach that the god of the Old Testament, the god of wrath and vengeance, was a different god than the god of the New Testament, the god of love and mercy. He was the first to suggest a list of sacred writings of the Apostles, and in his list he rejected any apostolic writing that quoted from the Old Testament because he did not like this god of wrath. He was condemned as a heretic by the church in 144 AD.

But the spirit of Marcion lives on. Most people seem to think that God underwent a personality change between the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament, He was angry, judgmental, and full of wrath, but a kinder and gentler God appears in the New Testament offering mercy and grace. And while that simple division might make us feel better about God as  new covenant believers, it is not even close what the Bible really teaches about God.

Here we have the apostle Paul saying that he is not ashamed of the wrath of God. And I want us to examine why it is that Paul is not ashamed of the wrath of God as it relates to the gospel.

1. Essential and Primary to the Gospel Message

The first reason that Paul is not ashamed of the wrath of God is because it is essential and primary to the gospel itself. Whenever you find someone in the New Testament trying to explain the gospel, the wrath of God shows up because it simply is an essential and primary part of the gospel itself.

The apostle Paul has no aversion to speaking of the wrath of God. Romans 1 is perhaps the clearest articulation of the wrath of God, but it is by no means the only passage. In Ephesians, Paul says that we were objects of God’s wrath when we were dead in our sins (see Ephesians 2.1-3). Later, in the same letter to the church in Ephesus, he wrote,

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Ephesians 5.5-6 NIV)

In Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, he wrote,

8He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. (2 Thessalonians 1.8-9 NIV)

Paul even summed up the gospel by saying the Jesus came to save us from the “coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1.10).

The apostle John was surely no stranger to the idea of the wrath of God. In his vision of what is to come that he records in the book of Revelation, the returning Christ is pictured as a righteous warrior. Listen to his description of Jesus in Revelation 19,

11I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King Of Kings And Lord Of Lords. (Revelation 19.11-16 NIV)

Jesus Himself speaks more about the judgment of God and hell than any other individual in the New Testament era. We like to quote the words of Jesus where He said, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world” but we cannot leave off these rest of the sentence, “But whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (See John 3.17-18). Jesus came to save sinners because they stood condemned in their unbelief and sin. Jesus tells multiple parables about the judgment to come when He returns and about the reality of hell.

Of course, it should come to no surprise to us that we don’t like this image of God. We prefer a God who is loving, accepting, and tolerant. And because of that, we have response of disgust to this idea of the wrath of God.

One of the interesting articles that I read this week about the wrath of God was written by a professor at Concordia University. John Oberdeck compared the stages of grief with humanity’s response to hearing the gospel message. In many ways, we are messengers of bad news when we proclaim the gospel. In effect, we are physicians telling their patients to set their house in order because there is no hope. How do people react when they hear the diagnosis of the terminal condition of sin? In many ways, mankind has reacted with the typical grief response denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Denial takes multiple forms. We deny the truth of the gospel by blaming others for our mistakes or rationalizing our sinfulness as “not all that bad” or even redefining “spirituality” into something that excludes “the wages of sin is death.” After denial comes anger, and usually that anger is aimed at God. Anger provides a sense of righteous indignation so that the individual approaches God from a position of superiority.  CS Lewis wrote,

We address people who have been trained to believe that whatever goes wrong in the world is someone else’s fault…They want to know not whether they can be acquitted for sin, but whether God can be acquitted for creating such a world.

We are angry at God because the consequences of sin are all God’s fault. Rebellion against God is the natural reaction to the discovery that the world was not made for our personal convenience.

But just because we don’t like the news of the wrath of God does not make it any less true. Even though we live in a culture that only accepts the truth that we like, the Bible is very clear: the wrath of God is being revealed against the wickedness of mankind.

Responding to the Wrath of God

What are we to do with this truth “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of mankind who suppress the truth by their wickedness”? Should we be ashamed of it and try to redefine the gospel so God is more presentable to our modern world? Let me suggest a few ways that we can embrace the wrath of God for our own salvation.

The Wrath of God Makes the Gospel Glorious

First, the beginning point of the gospel ought to make us glory in the good news of the gospel. A righteousness from God is revealed to a group of people who by all rights should be receiving the wrath of God. That is good news. In essence, understanding the wrath of God changes a “black and white” story into a “full color” story. Without the wrath of God, heaven is a pedantic concept, but with the wrath of God in full view, the gospel comes alive in living color.

Isn’t it curious, that when we read biblical stories about God’s wrath, we always assume that we are on God’s side? When we read the story of Noah, we always read it from the perspective of sitting on the boat. It never occurs to us that we should hear the story as one of those who were treading water and banging on the doors of the ark as the waters began to rise. We just assume that we are in the boat with Noah.

We read Romans 1 and instantly think about “them sinners.” We see others in Romans 1, but we don’t see ourselves. Paul wrote, “those who do these things deserve death” (see Romans 1.32) but we fail to see ourselves in the list of “every kind of wickedness”:

Evil, greed and depravity….full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice….gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful….invent ways of doing evil…disobey their parents….senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (See Romans 1.29-31)

This is not a list of “them there sinners.” This is a list that describes each and every one of us in this room. The wrath of God is revealed against us because we neither glorified God nor gave Him thanks (see Romans 1.21) and were perfectly at home gratifying the cravings of our sin nature and living however we saw fit (see Ephesians 1.1-3). And this ought to make us rejoice all the more in the good news of the gospel. When we see what was before us, the wrath of God, how much more beautiful is the grace of God? So, the wrath of God makes the good news of the gospel all that more beautiful. It turns the black and white gospel into the living color gospel which is why Paul is not ashamed of the wrath of God at all.

Hell is Good News for the Righteous

Another reason that Paul is not ashamed of the wrath of God is because hell is every bit as much of the gospel message as is heaven. And not to say that unashamedly because the very hope of heaven requires the existence of hell. If heaven is a place prepared for those who love God and who have repented from their sins, and if heaven is a place free from the effects of sin that cause pain and suffering (see Revelation 21.4), and if heaven is a place where the unbelieving, vile, murderers, idolaters, and immoral are not permitted (see Revelation 21.8), then that requires God to stand at the gates of heaven and refuse to allow sin to enter into heaven. If everyone gets into heaven, then heaven will be no different than earth, a place that is broken and in bondage to the effects of sin.

In many ways, hell is not bad news. Hell is good news. The good news of hell is that there will come a time in the future when God will banish the Devil and his angels and all those who follow the ways of this world and who want to gratify the cravings of their sin nature and those who love God will be no longer have to wrestle with the spiritual forces of darkness or the consequences of those who love sin. The good news is that there is an eternity free from the spiritual forces of evil and all of those who prefer evil over righteousness.

The gospel of which Paul is not ashamed of is very clear: those who refuse the righteousness of God by faith will be subject to the wrath of God, both in the here and now, and then fully in eternity. Jesus taught that hell is an eternal place just as heaven is an eternal place (Matthew 25.46), and that it will be a place of immense suffering, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25.30). Despite all of the horrible word pictures of hell, such as the place where the fire is never extinguished, the worst description of all is that hell is a place of everlasting punishment where one is shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power (see 2 Thessalonians 1.9). If God is the giver of every good and perfect gift, then hell is the absence of everything good and perfect.

If that is true, then what does it do for those of us who have the good news and who live among those who do not? With a firm belief in the wrath of God, those who have received the righteousness from God by faith are compelled to share the good news not only because of the abundant life that is offered in Christ but also because of the coming wrath of God. How do we not share that good news with someone that we know might be facing the wrath of God?

Beware of the Dangerous Life of Sin

Third, even though God has rescued us from the coming wrath and has appointed us to receive salvation and not wrath (see 1 Thessalonians 5.9), we cannot escape the fact that the wrath of God is revealed against all wickedness, even if it is the wickedness of His own people. In fact, judgment begins with the family of God (see 1 Peter 4.17) and God disciplines the children that He loves (see Hebrews 12.6). What that means is that it is a very dangerous situation for a follower of Christ who has received the righteousness by faith to live in wickedness. It truly is a “dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10.31). If you persist in living in sin, God will not be mocked forever (Galatians 6.7), and that is what you are doing if you claim the righteousness of God by faith but refuse to repent of your sin. All of the resources at God’s disposal which include nature, animals, disease, governments, and even angels will be marshaled against those who persist in wickedness. And yes, the fear of the Lord should be the beginning of wisdom.

What does it mean that the wrath of God “is being revealed,” in the present tense? In the biblical narrative, we see God executing His wrath in the present tense of the wicked in a wide variety of ways. For instance, in the great flood during the days of Noah, God used natural disaster to reveal His wrath (Genesis 6). In the exodus story, God used creatures like frogs or locusts or lice to reveal His wrath to Pharaoh (Exodus 10). He revealed His wrath through diseases like leprosy on Miriam (Numbers 12). He revealed His wrath on the Gibeonites through famine (2 Samuel 21). He often used a human as His instrument of wrath, such as Samson against the Philistines (Judges 16). He has revealed His wrath through nations and governments (Assyria and Babylon in the Old Testament). Sometimes, He directly reveals His wrath through the work of angels, as in the case of Herod (Acts 12).

And just in case we are tempted to see only Old Testament revelations of God’s wrath, we should not forget the stories of Ananias and Sapphira who dropped dead before Peter because they lied to the church and to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5), Herod who was struck down by an angel of the Lord and eaten by worms (Acts 12), the sexually immoral man of Corinth whom Paul wanted expelled from the church (1 Corinthians 5), or Hymenaeus and Alexander whom Paul handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1.20).

In other words, when we read the Bible, we see the present tense wrath of God being revealed in various ways. In the verses that follow in Romans, Paul will describe the revelation of God’s wrath in ways that may even be more horrible: it simply says that God gave them over to their sinful desires and to a depraved mind (see Romans 1.24, 1.26, and 1.28). To those who suppress the truth of God by their wickedness, God gave them over to their sin so that they could fill themselves to the brim with all kinds of evil and depravity. And in doing so, they would “receive in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (Romans 1.27).

The wrath of God is being revealed against all the wicked who suppress the truth of God by their wickedness through a variety of means, the most disturbing of all is that God allows them to be in bondage to the very wickedness they delight in.

And what does God’s wrath look like upon the wickedness of mankind, including those within the family of God? If we just take the examples of the New Testament where God’s wrath is revealed, we see clear examples of God’s wrath in physical illness. For example, some of the Christians in Corinth were sick, and some had even died, because of their sin in perverting the Lord’s Supper. Paul wrote,

27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11.27-32 NIV)

So, the wrath of is not just an issue with sinful mankind, but this is very much an issue even for the people of God who rebel against the truth of God and live in sin.

I do want to temper that message. I think it should be pointed out that when the apostles speak of the wrath of God, they can do so with the confidence that they have been spared from it (see 1 Thessalonians 5.9). The judgment of God was very real to the apostles, and they knew that it would begin with the family of God so they wanted to be careful how they lived, but they also had the confidence to know that they would be rescued from the coming wrath. They did not live in fear of the wrath of God. Receiving the righteousness by faith and living in the righteousness by faith brought the peace that they had become objects of His love and were no longer objects of His mercy. I say this because there are always some in the body of Christ who have fallen to the condemnation of the Enemy and who live in the fear of God’s wrath even though they are not living in unrepentant sin. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1) and our righteousness is not of our own but is a gift from God (see Philippians 3.9). It is possible to rest in God’s grace and mercy and to be free from the fear of God’s wrath which is the good news of the gospel.

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Posted by on April 27, 2010 in Sermons - Romans


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