The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18)
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven,” Paul says. But what is the wrath of God, and how is it revealed? We often tend to think of divine wrath as environmental catastrophes: floods, families, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and the like. When one of those hits the news cycle, there is always some high profile religious figure rushing in to pronounce that it is the judgment of God on this or that. But Paul speaks about the wrath of God very differently.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:20-23)First, he describes how there are things that may be known about God, how his eternal power and divine nature are evident from creation, how it is inherently known that we ought to honor God as our creator and give him thanks. He concludes that those who suppress the truth about God are without excuse, having traded wisdom for foolishness and turned to all sorts of idolatry, giving glory to the work of their own hands instead of to the God of all life.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:24-25)And now, here is the wrath of God revealed: Therefore God gave them over. To what did God give them over? To their own sinful desires. To the idolatry that was in their hearts, the idolatry of their own sexuality, by which they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator of everything. It was their own sexuality they wanted above all, so God gave them over to it. Anything we worship other than God debases us, curves us in upon ourselves and eventually brings us to nothing. The danger, if we persist in it, is that God will simply give us over to the self-degradation that is the natural consequence of every idolatry.
Paul speaks of sexual idolatry because he was addressing people who lived in a very sexually charged culture, very much like the world we find ourselves in today. The idolatry of modern culture is the self, expressed not only in materialism but also in the worship of sex. Money, sex and power are still the powerful motivators they have always been.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)For the second time, Paul speaks the words of God’s wrath: God gave them over. Then he describes the “shameful lusts” God hands them over to. My point is not to debate the nature of the lusts Paul speaks against here — leave that for another day. But clearly, we are living in highly sexualized times and there are many shameful things related to it. My point is simply that, for those who turn away from God and insist on the idolatry of shameful lusts, God abandons them to their shame, degradation and emptiness.
The idolatry of sex, however, is by no means the only category Paul has in mind. Now he broadens his scope to an array of the consequences that can result from turning away from God:
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)Paul repeats the terrible words for a third time: God gave them over. And what God gives them over to is a depraved mind. Then Paul lists the manifestations of that depravity, an awful inventory that defines the problems of the world today.
The wrath of God is not about floods or earthquakes or tsunamis. It is revealed when God leaves us to our own sinful desires, shameful lusts and depraved minds. “God gave them over,” Paul says, and those are the saddest words of all.
Next time, we will look at God's redemptive purpose in this.