How could One who delights only in what is pure and lovely not loathe what is polluted and ugly? How could He who is infinitely holy disregard sin, which by its very nature violates that holiness? How could He who loves righteousness not hate and act severely against all unrighteousness? How could He who is the sum of all excellency look with complacency on virtue and vice equally? God cannot do those things, because He is holy, just, and good. He would be unjust if He were passive or indifferent toward the evil things people do. Wrath is the only just response to wickedness.
Righteous wrath, therefore, is every bit as much an element of God’s divine perfection as any of His other attributes. Moreover, it’s the apostle Paul’s starting point in his most thorough and systematic presentation of the gospel of grace: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
Paul is determined for us to know that before we can understand the grace of God, we must first understand His wrath—that before we can understand the meaning of the death of Christ, we must first understand why man’s sin made that death necessary. Before we can begin to comprehend how loving, merciful, and gracious God is, we must first see how rebellious, sinful, and guilty unbelieving mankind is.
As Paul begins to unfold the details of the gospel of God in which His righteousness is revealed, he presents an extended discussion of the condemnation of man that extends through chapter 3 verse 20. And he starts with an unequivocal affirmation of God’s righteous wrath.
God’s attributes are balanced in divine perfection. If He had no righteous anger and wrath, He would not be God, just as surely as He would not be God without His gracious love. He perfectly hates just as He perfectly loves, perfectly loving righteousness and perfectly hating evil (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9). One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity, including much of evangelicalism, is the failure to preach and teach the wrath of God and the condemnation it brings upon all with unforgiven sin. The truncated, sentimental gospel that is frequently presented today falls far short of the gospel that Jesus and the apostle Paul proclaimed.
In glancing through a psalter from the late nineteenth century, I discovered that many of the psalms in that hymnal emphasize the wrath of God, just as much of the book of Psalms itself emphasizes His wrath. It is tragic that few hymns or other Christian songs today reflect that important biblical focus. As previously discussed in this series, Scripture—New Testament as well as Old—consistently emphasizes God’s righteous wrath. Later in his epistle to the Romans, Paul focuses again on God’s wrath and how it is integral to His sovereign workings:
What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory. (Romans 9:22–23)
A disease has to be recognized and identified before any cure can be applied. In the same way and for the same reason, Scripture reveals the bad news before the good news. God’s righteous judgment against sin is proclaimed before His gracious forgiveness of sin is offered. A person has no reason to seek salvation from sin if he does not know he is condemned by it. He has no reason to want spiritual life unless he realizes he is spiritually dead.
With the one exception of Jesus Christ, every human being since the Fall has been born condemned, because when Adam and Eve fell, the divine sentence against all sinners was passed. Paul therefore declared to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
In the brief scope of one verse (Romans 1:18), Paul presents four features that characterize God’s wrath: its uniqueness, its timing, its source, and its fullness. We’ll consider all of them in the days ahead.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1–8)