Focusing on God’s love is enjoyable. Realizing wrath and anger also characterize his nature isn’t as pleasurable. Sin angers God.
Imagine a cab company employed to deliver messages to wives during the Vietnam War. When entering the agreement, the owner tells the War Department he will only deliver happy messages bearing good news from the soldiers themselves. He will not deliver telegrams telling of death, injury, or missing in action. The armed forces probably would enter into a contract under these stipulations. All messages must be delivered.
So it is with the one about God’s wrath. We love to tell people how to get to heaven, but often avoid the subject of hell. Believing in the wrath of God and the love of God is necessary, for both characteristics of his nature are taught throughout Scripture.
God’s wrath or anger, however, is not like ours. Anger in itself is not a sin, but the Bible warns against this emotion simply because it is very dangerous and often leads to actions that are sinful and damaging to us.
Cain’s anger at his brother over God’s acceptance of his offering and rejection of his led to murder (Genesis 4:5). James warns us to be slow to speak and slow to get angry (James 1:19). And Paul cautions against letting the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26). Not going to bed while angry with a spouse or child (or anyone for that matter) is a good practice.
God’s wrath or anger is not directed at people as ours often is. Rather, his anger is against people’s sinful actions and sinful situations in general. Sin is the root cause of his anger. It is perfectly acceptable for us to be angry over sinful situations as well as the sinful acts we see others involved in. Sin, in all its forms, destroys. It also prevents people from realizing God’s purpose and plan for them.
Thus, anger over sin is acceptable for this moves us to action. However, our movements against sin must be tempered by obedience to God. It is not permissible to kill a doctor who performs abortions because we think abortion is a sin.
Paul’s announcement concerning the good news of the Gospel is over. He now begins building his case that all people are responsible to God for their sin. He will build a doctrine of sin which is vital for the believer to understand so we can preach and teach the whole counsel of God, not just what appears preferable to us. He is building a case to prosecute people, thereby helping them understand we are all responsible to God.
Some might ask why sin must be punished. Why can’t God let people do as they want without consequence?
We are responsible to God; he is holy and just and cannot tolerate sin. While he allows it to run rampant at present, a day of reckoning will come and none will be able to excuse themselves from their accountability to God. Sin destroys emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically. Sin holds no benefits. It was not baiting by God when he gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey or disobey. Rather, the choice made them human rather than robots.
This sin nature that Paul will deal with in depth later puts every human on a collision course with God’s will. Instead of accepting God’s truth, we search for truth according to our own definitions. We attempt to stifle the truth God reveals in nature and other means.
God does not enjoy punishing the sinner, and he does not gain any unusual pleasure when the wicked perish (Ezekiel 18:32). God’s nature, however, is one of moral perfection. Though he allows sin to exist now, there will come the time when it will be banned forever from his presence and the presence of all the saints. Habakkuk reminds us of God’s nature when he writes, “Thou are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (1:13).
God does not want to remove sinners from his presence but rather restore them to a right relationship with him. Those who persist in their rebellion against God must endure his punishment. Just as an attorney will present a case to a jury and judge before conviction is determined and sentence passed, so Paul will do the same so that we can see the justice of God in his sentence against those who refuse him.
All People are Without Excuse for Their Sin. (19-20)
We immediately think of those who have not heard the Gospel in their language or who have not heard it clearly. How can God hold people responsible who have not had the opportunity to believe? These questions usually pertain to “heathens” living in foreign lands.
The revelation of God in nature enters into such a discussion and beyond that whether or not this revelation is sufficient to bring one to faith in Christ. If it isn’t, then again we might ask how God can hold them accountable.
We must first establish the fact that all people are accountable to God, regardless of what situation they’re born into. God did not make us rebel; we chose that course of action. Nor is God under obligation to bring us to faith in him (though that is the only way we will come). In spite of our predicament, and because of his love for us, God desired a restored relationship with humanity. Although that is so, we still cannot place him under obligation to us but must always remember our obligation is to him.
Man’s inexcusability is made known in verse 19 where Paul proclaims that the truth about God is made known to humanity instinctively and is manifest in them. This does not mean people know all they can or need to about God, but on the other hand it does not mean they simply know there is a God and nothing more. People know enough to render themselves inexcusable.
By looking at nature, we can determine some invisible qualities of God: he is powerful and greater than a mere human. The acts of creation and providence are such that people are motivated to ponder who made them.
Bible scholars have debated whether God’s revelation in nature is enough to bring people to faith. Some maintain God gives enough light, and if that is followed he will give more and then more until faith is complete. Whether the revelation in nature is sufficient actually misses the point. Again, this is an effort to place God under obligation to us and to maintain he cannot hold us accountable because he did not do enough for us.
Even if God gave no light, we would still be accountable to him. He is the Creator and we are the creations. We are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and when we live apart from him there is a void everyone attempts to fill. The dilemma is that we often look to other sources and things rather than God to fill the void. Paul will list some of these actions in the following verses. Therefore, people are without excuse.
Our human nature prompts us to try to excuse ourselves or to place blame on someone else for our actions. The child caught cheating on a test may blame the teacher, proposing the questions are too difficult or that enough time was not given for preparation. On judgment day, there will be many who will try to convince God he is unfair or unjust in his sentence.
That people can observe God through nature does not eliminate the need for missionaries and mission work. People may know God exists through nature, but their sinfulness and its consequences need pointing out. Missional work directs people to the need for forgiveness and the consequences that result if forgiveness is not sought. Mission work places us in obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). While nature may tell people about God, they also need to know about his Son and what he did on Calvary. Therefore, Paul’s “no excuse theology” is not an excuse for Christians not to be mission minded.
The Results of Going Our Own Way (21-23)
Though the light was there, mankind went his own sinful way, forgetting at some point the Gospel pronouncement in infancy that had been made to Adam and Eve. The woman’s offspring (Christ) would crush the head of the serpent (a lethal blow to Satan), while the serpent (Satan) would only strike Christ’s heel (Calvary). This pronouncement is known as the Protoevangelium or first announcement of the Gospel.
Paul then characterizes humanity’s actions that result from rejecting God. They do not worship God or give him thanks. They think up foolish ideas of what God is like. As a result, their minds are dark and confused, and they are fools. They make idols in the shapes of people, birds, animals, and snakes.
This is a good place to distinguish between general and special revelation. General revelation is God’s making known of some of his attributes in nature. Special revelation is the giving of God’s Word so people could transmit it orally—and later written—as well as the revelation that came through Christ.
We may think of the heathen as foolish for worshipping something they made and thinking it has divine qualities, but idols are anything that replaces God. While modern people may not construct images of animals or people, the idols we construct are just as abominable as the ones made by those who live in darkness. Things we feel we cannot live without, priorities that are greater than God, and things we would sacrifice for selfish dreams are all evidences of idols.
As much as God hates and is angry over sin, it was our sin that ushered in his love.