Studies in the Epistles of Paul
Does God want to punish sinners, or to rescue them?
Paul introduces his letter to the Romans as a letter about the gospel, and he describes the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” In the gospel, he says, God’s righteousness is revealed. The good news is that God, in his righteousness, is giving us salvation.
After stating his thesis, Paul explains the gospel in more detail, starting with our need for the gospel. Why do we need this message of salvation? Left on our own, we would be trying to live and form societies in wrong-headed ways. Paul explains that we were not going in a morally neutral direction — we were enemies of God, and we should therefore expect God to be angry at us. We need a message of good news so that we come to love God rather than be afraid of him.
The wrath of God
Paul explains the problem starting in verse 18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” God is angry at sin — and we should expect him to be. History books and newspapers report all sorts of crimes and atrocities that we should all be angry about. When one of our children hurts another, we should be angry. So God is right to be angry, and that’s why many people believe that God is going to punish all the people who do evil.
However, there is something odd about this. It is like a prison warden who is so angry at the prisoners that he sends his son into the prison to tell them how to escape, and he gives them the key to his own home so they will have a place to live. This is not what we normally expect from “wrath.” The gospel reveals that our concepts of God’s wrath are wrong.
Paul is turning religious assumptions upside down — he may begin with a concept like “wrath,” but he does not leave it there. The gospel reveals how Christ has turned things around. We cannot take verse 18 as Paul’s final statement on the matter, because it is not. It is merely the starting point in his explanation of the gospel. We need to see these verses as part of Paul’s strategy of explaining the gospel. He is starting with ideas that his readers probably agree with, but he explains that the gospel calls those assumptions into question.
People assume that God is angry at sinners because they sin even when they ought to know better. (In Paul’s day, it was generally people from a Jewish background who made this assumption; today it is generally Christian conservatives.) As Paul will soon explain, this would mean that God is angry at absolutely everybody. Instead, the gospel reveals a God who loves people even when they are his enemies, a God who sets the ungodly right, a God who rescues people from their addictions. He wants us to escape the punishment.
Verse 19 describes some of the common assumptions about why God would be angry at sinners: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” How did he make it plain? Verse 20: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.”
Modern science tells us that the universe had a beginning. There was nothing, and there was suddenly something — a big bang, creating and filling the universe. This colossal explosion had a cause, a cause that existed before time did, a cause that was not part of the world the big bang created. Many people conclude that the cause was God. However, this gives only a rudimentary understanding of what God is. People might deduce that God is eternal and supernatural, but it says nothing about morality, and nothing about salvation. The gospel reveals something different: a God who came to his people in a form they did not expect. God’s most important characteristics are revealed not by creation, but by Christ.
God could make himself plain if he wanted to. He could be a pillar of fire, or he could write messages in the sky. He could make his existence unavoidable, but he chooses not to. He allows people to ignore him and reject him. We are not forced to quiver in front of an overwhelming power, so that our love can be freely given.
A bad trade
But many people reject God: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (verse 21). This was the common Jewish explanation of idolatry, as we see from other Jewish literature of this time period. Although people had an opportunity to know about God, they ignored him and did not show any appreciation. As a result, their thinking became futile — it did not produce any fruit. If we try to make sense out of life without God in the picture, we will never get the right answer.
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (verses 22-23). Most cultures claim to be wise, but if they think it is smart to reject truth and build on falsehood, then they are foolish. They are giving up something wonderful and ending up with snakes and fools to worship. Their gods can never be anything more than imitations.
Letting them do what they want
So what did God do? “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves” (verse 24). In the usual Jewish critique of paganism, God lets people suffer from the results of their erroneous ideas. They miss out on the wisdom and guidance of God. Jews commonly criticized the Gentile world about their sexual practices, and Paul uses that example. This is one way they “degrade” their bodies.
Paul repeats these thoughts in verses 25-26: “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.” The people traded away truth and lived as if God did not exist. God was so “angry” that he let them do what they want.
Paul says: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (verses 26-27). Paul is not saying that God is going to punish them for their awful behavior. No, his emphasis is different. Paul is saying that God is already punishing them by letting them do these sexual sins. Paul is shifting the meaning of wrath and punishment.
The sins that people commit are results of their self-chosen alienation from God, and the results they get are the natural results of what they are doing. When we cut ourselves off from God, the things we want are often bad for us, and if God lets us do what we want, we end up doing things that are bad for us. Sexual sins are one example; Paul could have just as easily used greed as a different example, or dishonesty, or violence. Different problems appeal to different people, and if we just do what we want, we end up hurting ourselves as well as others. Verse 28 puts it like this: “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.”
Paul gives many more examples in verses 29-31: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” People do not want to live in a world of greed and envy, murder and deceit. They don’t want a world of depravity, arrogance and slander, but without God, that is where they end up.
Paul is echoing part of the standard Jewish view of the world, and he is building rapport with his Jewish readers. But he is setting them up, we might say — after presenting this judgmental worldview, he is going show that it condemns them just as much as it does the Gentiles. If God is going to punish sinners, then he will have to punish everyone. But as Paul will soon explain, this way of looking at the world is not right. The gospel has a different view of sin and judgment — it reveals the righteous mercy of God.
Jews traditionally believed that envy, murder, strife, and homosexuality are wrong. Paul does nothing to correct that view — we can see in his other letters that he agreed with them on that. But he disagreed with them on the consequences of that. The gospel reveals that God wants to rescue sinners, rather than destroy them. The fact that God forgives sins does not mean that God doesn’t care whether we do them. He wants us to avoid sin, but the gospel also announces that sin does not have the final word. Sin leads to death, but death does not have the final word.
Verse 32: “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” Maybe it seems harsh to say that a gossiper deserves to die, and that envious people deserve to die. But it is true: no one can say that the universe owes them eternal life. If they turn away from the Author and the Giver of life, then it is natural that they would cut themselves off from life.
However, there is something odd about this verse. Paul is saying that the people deserve to die. Paul seems to be agreeing with this judgment; he seems to be condemning people to death for their sins. But in the very next verse (chapter 2, verse 1), Paul criticizes people who pass judgment and condemn others! Is he criticizing himself? No, he is criticizing the religious worldview described in verse 32. The gospel reveals a God who gives salvation, and a God who is righteous in doing so. God’s righteous decree according to the gospel is life, not death.
The gospel is the power of salvation, and the revelation of God’s righteousness is the solution not only for the sins of paganism, but also the sin of being judgmental. God has acted to rescue people, to save them, to restore them to righteousness. As Paul will explain in later chapters, he has done it in Jesus Christ.
Things to think about
- In what way does creation inform me about God? (verse 20)
- Is it true that everyone has evidence of God? Why doesn’t God make himself more obvious?
- Are foolish desires a sin or a punishment? (verse 24)
- Which of the sins am I most likely to commit? (verses 30-31)
- Is God’s anger part of the gospel, or the setting in which the good news is revealed?
Author: Michael Morrison, 2003, 2012