One of the tragic elements of our fallen nature is the inclination to evaluate our actions according to our own standards. Little wonder so many people perceive themselves as “good people.” Solomon observed, “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives” (Proverbs 16:2). Ultimately, it is God who will adjudicate based on His holy standards. That’s why the apostle Paul was taking aim at all of us when he wrote: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18, emphasis added).
God’s wrath is universal, being discharged against all who deserve it. No amount of goodwill, giving to the poor, helpfulness to others, or even service to God can exclude a person from the “all” Paul refers to in Romans 1:18. As he later explains more explicitly, “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:9, 23). Obviously, some people are morally better than others, but even the most moral and upright person falls far short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. No one escapes.
Men’s relative goodness compared to God’s perfect standard can be illustrated by a hypothetical attempt to jump from the beach near Los Angeles to Catalina Island, a distance of some twenty-two miles. Some people could not manage to jump at all, many could jump a few feet, and a rare few could jump twenty or twenty-five feet. The longest conceivable jump, however, would cover only the smallest fraction of the distance required. The most moral person has as little chance of achieving God’s righteousness in his own power as the best athlete has of making that jump to Catalina. Everybody falls short.
The second emphasis of this phrase is on the nature of God’s wrath. It is not like the wrath of a madman who strikes out indiscriminately, not caring who is injured or killed. Nor is it like the sin-tainted anger of a person who seeks to avenge a wrong done to him. God’s wrath is reserved for and justly directed at sin. Asebia (“ungodliness”) and adikia (“unrighteousness”) are synonyms stressing a faulty personal relationship to God. God is angered because sinful men are His “enemies” (Romans 5:10) and therefore “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
“Ungodliness” refers to lack of reverence for the one true God, a failure that inevitably leads to some form of false worship. Although the details and circumstances are not revealed, Jude reports that Enoch, the righteous seventh-generation descendant of Adam, prophesied about God’s coming “to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him” (Jude 14–15). Four times he uses the term “ungodly” to describe the focus of God’s wrath upon sinful mankind.
“Unrighteousness” encompasses the idea of ungodliness but focuses on its result. Sin first attacks God’s majesty and then His law. Men do not act righteously because they are not rightly related to God, who is the only measure and source of righteousness. Ungodliness unavoidably leads to unrighteousness. Because men’s relation to God is wrong, their relation to their fellow men is wrong. Men treat other men the way they do because they treat God the way they do. Man’s enmity with his fellow man originates with his being at enmity with God.
That reality shouldn’t require any detailed substantiation. It is plainly evident throughout all of humanity—regardless of history, ethnicity, gender, or geographical location—that the conflict continues unabated. The relentless hostility between people going on in the world today is the manifestation of their hostility toward God. The Creator’s wrathful disposition toward His rebellious creatures is both justifiable and entirely consistent with His righteous character.
Moreover, God’s wrath being plainly evident is actually a blessing. It is a powerful and provocative reminder of our need to be reconciled to Him. So much so that we are without excuse if we refuse to repent. And we’ll consider that next time as this series concludes.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1–8)