Wrath Rewritten

Text: Romans 1:18-32

Title: Wrath Revealed: Wrath Rewritten

Theme: The Wrath of God is a good thing!

Purpose: To uncover some of our misconceptions about God’s wrath, as manifestations of our tendency to suppress the truth of God, and exhort us to accept and live according to a more positive view of this wrath as revealed in this passage and in our own experience.

Wrath Revealed, Wrath Rewritten

(Romans 1:18-32)

Jay Hull (October 3, 1993)

God’s Wrath Against Mankind
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men 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. 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 men 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 mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

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 of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural 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 indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to 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 are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 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 1:18-32

I’m up here today to talk about God’s Wrath. How many of you are excited about the Wrath of God?… The wrath of God: Can you think of a better conversation killer? Sitting around the lunchroom with your pals: “Can you believe she’s going out with Bob?” “Yeah, they went to the 49er game yesterday.” “Do you suppose they’ll get their act together this year?” “I don’t know, Bob is pretty strange.” “No, I mean the Niners!”

And then you chime in–“Yeah, and how about that Wrath of God.” Everybody stops laughing, and sandwiches are held in mid-chew as you continue. “Can you believe all the ways its being revealed these days? Bloody ethnic wars, collapsing economies… the Wrath of God… teen pregnancies and suicide, STD epidemics… the Wrath of God… Urban Unrest and that nagging sense of Post-Modern Meaninglessness. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” [SILENCE] “Thanks for sharing that.”

Nobody wants to hear about God’s Wrath I recently heard about a neighbor who was invited to one of our small groups. He came a couple weeks ago, but then later told the host he wouldn’t be coming back. “Why is that?” asked the host, “Is there something we could improve upon in our study?” “Well,” he said, “I’m looking for a different style. I’ve read ahead a little bit in the study book, and it’s so negative. I don’t want to hear all that negative stuff. I think Christians should be positive. We should be talking about what’s good in us instead of all that negative stuff. ”

My guess is that it was today’s passage that this former Romans Group member read ahead to.

Actually. I’ve got a surprise for us today. As I have studied and prepared for this message, I have made an astounding discovery: The Wrath of God is a good thing! What looks like as negative a thing as you will find anywhere in the Bible is really a very positive thing! Now, instead of being sad that I have to talk about it, I am sad because that Romans Group visitor and those people in our lunch rooms and probably many of us here today don’t understand and appreciate how good God’s Wrath really is. And I hope and I pray that somehow God will use my words today to help us all accept and actually be thankful for God’s Wrath In maybe it would be a good idea if we stopped and prayed for that right now…

Do you suppose Paul the Apostle could get this book called Romans published if he had written it today? I can imagine him going from publishing house to publishing house, carrying his tattered and smudged manuscript in a manila folder with a broken clasp, knocking on doors trying to spread the Good News. Through divine intervention, I can see him actually getting past the first few lines of defense and getting somebody to read it and then being summoned for a meeting with a heavy- weight editor…

“Paul, come in. Sit. Sit. Listen, I don’t have much time. I’m doing lunch with Stephen King in 10 minutes, but I think this Romans thing has some potential. Really. It’s so, well, so… different, creative! Where’d you get these ideas? Nevermind. It’s not important. I like the salvation angle. And all that stuff about eternal life? Nice. It’ll sell. It’s fresh, it’s alive, it’s up, it’s positive. But, Paul baby, all that jazz about wrath, it’s a wet blanket, it’s cold water on a warm face, you know what I mean? We’re definitely going to have to do a rewrite on the end of chapter one… ”

And so it goes for modern man and the wrath of God. God reveals what is true, and we rewrite it. Why? Let’s listen to what Paul says in this disturbing section of his amazing letter, ideas he got from God to share with people like us.

Paul’s main argument begins in this section and continues into chapter 3. His first point is this: No one stands in right relationship to God on their own. “Total need” is the phrase Karl Barth used in his Romans Commentary to describe our situation. Everyone stands in a position of total need before God. This is crucial to understand and accept because if we cannot admit our need we will not accept God’s grace.

Our main problem is sin, a condition of our inner selves willfully oriented against and away from God rather than for and with Him. As Paul describes, God plainly reveals Himself all around us in the world He has made, and we suppress the truth.

Actively and willfully the primitive tribesman suppresses what God is telling him through the ordering of nature. Actively and willfully the modem businesswoman pushes away the truth about God shouted by her dying conscience. Week after week the intelligent congregation hears messages from God’s specially revealed Word of Truth, and week after week, actively and willfully they choose not to do what the Bible says.

Then, sin means we do not live in right relationship with God. We should be worshipping and honoring God as God. We should be thanking Him, continuously, for all He does for us. But we don’t. Instead we turn away from the Living God and put other things, other little gods, first in our hearts. Other things beside the claims of God upon us and His revealed desires for us motivate our choices and color our values. This is called idolatry. It is an exchange, really the worst trade a person can ever make but one we all rush toward with callous indifference.

Three times Paul uses the word “exchange” in this passage to describe our disastrous trades. If you owned the Giants, would you deal away Barry Bonds plus 10 million dollars for a T-ball substitute right fielder? Nobody would make a trade that dumb! Oh yeah, listen to this: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”(Romans 1:22-23) We’re trading the glory of immortal God for images of mortal things. We don’t even get a real kid for Barry Bonds and the Millions, it’s only a picture of a kid! “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie…” (v.25) And now we look more carefully at the trade and find that the kid in the picture is holding the wrong end of the bat. They lied to us about his T-ball experience! “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.”  What is natural for what is unnatural, another bad trade… Wait a minute. That’s not a little boy in that picture at all. Oh no! We’ve traded Barry Bonds and 10 million for a picture of a penguin in a baseball cap. And penguins, by nature, can’t even play the game. Bad trade.

And how does God respond to our sin? What does God do when we insist on trading away everything for nothing? What is the answer from heaven when earth’s human inhabitants turn away from the Living God, refuse to honor and thank Him, and suppress the truth? –Wrath!

Here is another phrase Paul repeats three times: “God gave them over.” “God gave them over…to impurity and degradation…to shameful lusts…to a depraved mind…” If there are things we want more than Almighty God, Almighty God “gives us over” to those things. He lets us go. Notice carefully, though, that Paul does not say “God gives us what we want.” He says “God gives us to what we want.” What we love and honor, fear and serve more than God gets us.  But nothing other than the Living Creating Sustaining God can give us what we truly want and need. We can only get real joy and peace, lasting health and wholeness, strong security and significance, and true love in relationship to Him. Every idol ultimately destroys us, but God brings life.

This is what is true, and this is why God’s wrath is a good thing.

Our sin doesn’t fit with God’s program for real and lasting human health and wholeness, so He reveals wrath against it. But God’s wrath doesn’t fit our program of serving our own gods and proclaiming human wisdom by suppressing divine truth, so we rewrite it. It’s a bad trade.

What are some of the truths God has revealed about His wrath? And how do we alter them? And how can this divine wrath actually be something to thank our God for?

Let’s examine what Paul says at the end of Romans l, focusing especially on the first verse of this section.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” (v. 18)

First of all, God’s Wrath is Real. There is no hint that Paul is using the idea of divine wrath as a metaphor for unexplained human tragedies or accidents. Wrath is real, and it is a backhanded tribute to the dignity of human beings. God Himself takes our choices seriously. God can love us and be pleased with us, but He can and does also become angry for us. Wrath is real, and so we must deal with it.

But we don’t want to deal with it, so we rewrite it. Our world says all this wrath stuff is Imagined.  It is simply a way for simple minds to explain complex events. Escalating strife, malice and violence in our cities, increasing depravity in our papers and on our screens, families torn apart by faithlessness and heartlessness, senseless children defying parents, arrogance and deceit applauded in the business world… When God says His wrath is real and we say it is imagined, we are suppressing the truth and we are going to experience more of this thing we say does not exist.

If we are able to look for it, it will be revealed. And this is the next thing Paul affirms about God’s Wrath. It is Revealed. It is visible and present. And this revelation is a continuing process. “The wrath of God is being revealed” Paul says. We do not have to look very far to see evidence for the wrath of God. Sinful, rebellious lives tend to bring on dire consequences for all of us. This is not a matter of guesswork. God has put it in writing for us, and not just in the Bible–It’s reported in every issue of the Enterprise Record and advertised in every edition of the News and Review. Still, we rewrite the Holy Editor’s copy. We think of God’s Wrath as something Hidden, a mysterious force beyond our sight or which we will only see later.

I recently heard of an employee who was fired. A year earlier he had received a very poor review from his supervisor. He simply was not doing the job. But his work did not improve, so he was called into the division manager’s office and offered a program of additional remedial training. The employee showed little interest in this help, so the company owner met with him and gave him a stern warning and a list of specific duties and measures of expected improvement. Nothing changed, so a letter went to his home from the personnel office stating that unless he dramatically changed his work habits he would be terminated in 30 days. 30 days came and went. No change. On day 31, the personnel director came and told this employee he no longer worked for the company. “What do you mean?” he asked. “You’re fired.” “Fired?” “Yes, haven’t you been paying attention? We have given you warning after warning!” The now-former employee responded: “I didn’t know you were serious.”

God is not going to surprise us with His wrath. It is being revealed today. God is serious about our sin, and He is giving us warning after warning. God’s wrath is good.

God’s Wrath is also Reasonable. It is “being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.” Our wickedness deserves such wrath. In fact, we deserve death. Every one is without excuse in this matter. If God is God, His wrath is not unfair or undeserved. Notice also, it is not against people but against “the godlessness and wickedness of men.” God does not desire to kill us. He desires to extinguish our sin. Sin hurts us and is an abomination to God. It is reasonable for a Holy God not to sit still but actively to destroy it. If we refuse to let go of what is killing us, if we would rather wrap our arms tightly around our wickedness and descend into the pit, does this prove God to be unreasonable? I don’t think so. But somehow we rewrite wrath, so that it comes out Capricious instead of reasonable. We pretend it is meted out willy-nilly. Our problem, in this matter may be that we tend to think God’s Wrath is like human wrath. It is not. Human wrath is never entirely reasonable. There is always an element of selfishness in our anger. Seldom, maybe never, do we care enough about the one we lash out against. God’s Wrath, however, is not like this. It is deserved. It is an expression of concern for us as well as against us. It is good. We cannot judge God by human standards. We must not try. Instead we must resolve to judge ourselves according to God’s standards.

God’s Wrath is also Relational. But we tend to think of it as Impersonal, a force that occasionally comes from far away, lightning bolts to pay sinners back for crossing the line. “If you practice sexual promiscuity, God’s Wrath will get you.” When we hear this, I think, our minds run to “payback” diseases like syphilis or AIDS or to “payback” circumstances like unwanted pregnancy. But if the wrath of God is primarily expressed by the impersonal inflicting of these kinds of maladies, why doesn’t everybody who sleeps around get them?

To push God’s Wrath wholly onto diseases like AIDS is to miss the real and profound and relational nature of God’s wrath. Let me illustrate this using the sin of sexual immorality.

If you are sexually promiscuous, you will (no matter who you are) experience an erosion of your human dignity. Your sense of wonderful humanness, made in the image of the Creator God, will be chipped away. Your self-respect and your respect for others will deteriorate. Finally, you will come to see yourself as little more than a “thing” and others as equally worthless “things” of interest to you only because they push your button when your little pleasure god says “Come and worship me. ”

And actually, it goes back a step further. As James Dunn points out in his commentary on Romans. ‘Sexual immorality is not the cause of God’s Wrath but the result of it. The real sin is turning away from God and to idols. So, God lets us go and the ‘promiscuous lifestyle’ is the result.”

The same could be said for every kind of sin. The “homosexual lifestyle” the “materialistic lifestyle” the “violent lifestyle”, all are the result of God’s Wrath which comes when we suppress the truth and turn to idols. This is the real Wrath of God in action, and it is inescapable when you sin because it is not the car crash on your way home from the porno movie. It is in the act of sin itself. It is slow and steady. It is built into the fabric of your choice to rebel against God. It is the reward our little gods give to their followers. Destruction, depravity, death. The Wrath of God. It is relational. God “gives us over”, He lets us go. If we want to break up with God and go with other gods, He lets us. But His Wrath will come because He does not want to break up with us. Wrath, then, is not primarily a lightning bolt or a killer disease thrown at you from afar. It is something wrapped up in our rejection of a healthy relationship with God, and our exchange instead for relationships with other little gods. You can’t build up antibodies against it, and you can’t counteract its effects, except by refusing to sin, which is impossible if you are a sinner living apart from God.

Finally, God’s Wrath is Redemptive. It Rescues. Our world which keeps trying hard to suppress the truth about us and God, so it looks at God’s Wrath as something entirely Destructive. So we tend to rewrite what God has revealed and say it Condemns. But that is not so. Why does God send His wrath? Because He hates sin? Yes. Because He refuses to cooperate with our rebellion against Him? Yes. Because He will not allow His great name to be dishonored? Yes. But in addition God’s Wrath serves a Redemptive purpose. God will not be a codependent in our destructive idolatries. Paul says He “gives us over”, but He really doesn’t. Not entirely. God will not sit idly by while we foolishly destroy ourselves with our bad trades. He will throw warning after warning at us in the form of His wrath. Why? Because God loves us and desires more than we know for us to turn back to Him. God’s Wrath is good.

What can we do about our predicament that puts us under the Wrath of God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s Paul’s point here. We are in a condition of total need. But, as we shall see later on in Romans and as we affirm whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God provides His total help for our total need.

God’s Wrath, then, can play an important role for us by convincing us of our need and pointing us toward God’s help in Jesus Christ. How many of us have come to saving faith in Jesus Christ only after experiencing the dark and hopeless place of God’s Wrath. It is a good thing. Thank God that He cared enough to send His wrath.

Let me close with a final illustration of the goodness of God’s Wrath.

Imagine, if you will, a small town in, let’s say, Missouri (pun intended) where all the people have been hopelessly hooked on video games. Everybody has a Nintendo or a Sega Genesis at home, and everybody carries a Game-boy at all times. All commerce has stopped. The wheat fields are left un-harvested. The farmers are playing Super Mario Brothers. The general store sells only batteries. The grocer is into Sonic the Hedgehog. Suddenly, people start experiencing acute abdominal pains. Then people start dying. At the funerals it’s hard to hear over all the beeps and clicks of the games as the minister talks between rounds of Streetfighter II.

Imagine a doctor comes to this crazy town and quickly gives a name to the people’s pain. He says it is called “Hunger”. “You must eat or you will die,” he says. “Look how thin you are all getting. Harvest your crops. Restock your pantries. Eat.”

But the people will not let this advice intrude upon their games. The “Game Boys” keep beeping, and children keep dying. The doctor goes away, but he comes back later with syringes full of medicine. “This will help,” he says, and he gives everyone a shot. The medicine takes away the pain of hunger. People are happier ’til their dying day. Within a month the last person in town falls clutching a “Tetris” cartridge, and lay dead next to a field of waving wheat. Was this doctor good?

Another town, just a ways down the highway, same problem. No eating. Lots of meaningless games. A different doctor comes to this town. “You must eat or you will die,” he says. “Look how thin you are all getting. Harvest your crops. Restock your pantries. Eat.”

But the people will not let this advice intrude upon their games. The “Game Boys” keep beeping, and children keep dying. The doctor goes away, but he comes back later with syringes full of medicine. “This will help” he says, and he gives everyone a shot.

This medicine is actually a catalyst. Under normal conditions it has no effect, but when there is an accompanying condition of acute vitamin deficiency it increases internal pain and causes blindness. Gradually the people lose their sight. It becomes harder and harder to play their silly games. The pain is intense and they can’t see. Some people continue playing and starving even when they are totally blind and can see nothing that is happening on the game screens. Others, though, realize the futility of what they are doing and start eating again. They get better, and they try to get others to follow their example and take some nourishment. Some farmers and business people go back to work. And they give a name to the medicine that is in them all causing such pain and pointing to such healing. They call it “Doctor’s Wrath,” and they know it is a good thing.