For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
The Wrath of God Revealed From Heaven
Paul cannot speak about living by faith without thinking immediately about the wrath of God. That may seem odd, but as noted above, this was the issue that Habakkuk dealt with, and it is the central issue of Romans: God promised to save the world through Israel, and Israel, because of unbelief, is under the wrath of God. How do we square this with the promises of God? By faith. Faith trusts the faithfulness of God in spite of the faithlessness of Israel.
Paul shows us that the wrath of God is an integral part of the faithfulness of God. God’s wrath is not a matter of God giving up in frustration. Rather, the wrath of God has a redemptive purpose: it is the chastening of the Lord. We understand by faith that God is working out His purpose in the earth in and through the chastening of His people. God will save the world by His grace freely given in Christ. This is the astounding idea that Paul will develop more fully in chapters 9-11. God is bringing about the resurrection of all things through the death of all things in Christ.
Furthermore—and this is where it gets really astounding—Israel even in her rebellion embodies the death and resurrection of Christ in a redemptive manner. Paul will show that Christ has borne the wrath of God upon Israel in such a way that the chastisement of Israel is transformed from mere punishment to redemptive suffering that brings salvation to the world. The “casting away of Israel” inaugurates the ingathering of the nations, and the ingathering of the nations will precipitate the restoration of Israel. That is truly astounding!
The wrath of God is a major theme in the book of Romans. Paul will speak at length about “condemnation” as God’s judgment upon the lawless, which includes everyone, both Jew and Gentile. Paul will show how the wrath of God is focused upon Christ as a substitute and sacrifice, and that “there is no condemnation” to those who are in Christ. But the theme of God’s wrath will come to its crescendo in Romans 9-11. There Paul speaks about the first-century situation of Israel in light of her apostasy and the wrath to come. The wrath to come, at least in the immediate future, is the impending judgment upon Jerusalem and its temple in AD70, which Paul characterizes as the “breaking away” of branches from an olive tree.
Paul declares here that the wrath of God is “revealed from heaven.” Paul speaks as one thoroughly steeped in Old Testament language and imagery. The judgment of God upon Israel and the nations is always characterized in the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets as coming from heaven upon the earth. God rushes upon the cities of the earth with His mighty host of heavenly armies to destroy those who resist His will. Of course, God’s heavenly action is always manifested in the visible realm as earthly armies drafted by God to be the agents of His divine retribution. This is how God can speak of using Assyria as a “hired razor” (Isaiah 7:20). When God judges His people, He uses the armies of the earth to do His bidding. The kings of the world become His “hired gun,” as we might say. And then, ironically, God judges the kings that He used to chasten His people. God drafts pagan kings to spank His people, and then God spanks the pagan king for spanking His people using another pagan king that will himself be spanked! Seems like a whole lot of spanking going on.
The wrath of God is directed “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” God focuses His wrath upon ungodly and unrighteous men who “suppress the truth” about God through unrighteous living. These men lie about the nature of God. They lie about the faithfulness of God. They know the truth about God, “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them,” but they deliberately lie about God and misrepresent Him. They do so through idolatry.
These idolaters have no excuse for their lying, for God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Creation was formed by God to bear His image and manifest His glory. However, even though fallen man knows the truth about God, he refuses to “honor him as God or give thanks to him.” And this is the bottom line: rebellious humanity cannot abide the idea of giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving acknowledges an obligation. Thanksgiving requires genuine humility, and the fallen pride of man cannot submit to such humiliation. So, they turn to idols.
Paul says that idolatrous men start down the path toward idolatry by becoming “futile in their thinking.” Futility is vanity or emptiness, worthless and fruitless behavior. The prophets described idols as worthless vanities, and Paul borrows the description. Idolatry is vain worship because there is nothing there. Idol worshippers pray to gods that do not exist. However, Paul traces the vanity of idolatry back to its roots in the mind. Vain worship begins with vain thinking.
These idolaters claimed to be wise, but they became fools. And in their folly, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Man was created in the image and likeness of God, and this image and likeness would grow into perfect glory as man beheld the face of the Lord in daily worship and communion. In other words, man was created to become like God as he beheld the glory of God. The divine likeness is communicated by revelation and reflection. Man becomes what he worships. But now, man, in his folly, turned his face away from the one true God and bowed before images of his own design, images that reflected man, birds, animals and reptiles.
However, the basic idea that man becomes what he worships did not change. So, when man began to worship other men, birds, animals and reptiles, he began to take on the nature of these things. Fallen man began to reflect other fallen men so that the corruption of man was compounded. Man began to take on the nature of birds, animals and reptiles. Furthermore, notice the degenerative nature of idolatry: fallen man first worships other men; then, he worships birds; next, animals; and, finally, he bows before reptiles to worship them. Idolatry leads man further and further down into the gutter until he more closely resembles the serpent than God. How are the mighty fallen!
It may seem at first that Paul’s discourse here is a generic diatribe against idolatry in general. However, a closer look reveals that Paul is already marshalling his arguments against Israel and her attempt to be righteous “in the flesh.” When Paul speaks about those who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God,” he has a specific sin of idolatry in mind—Israel’s sin at the Golden Calf. We see this when we trace Paul’s quote in verse 23 to Psalm 106:20, which speaks about Israel “exchanging the glory of God” at the Golden Calf. Israel’s worship of idols, while in the very shadow of Sinai, is the perfect illustration of the impossibility of attaining righteousness through the law. This will echo throughout Romans.
Remember, the Book of Romans is written to explain the role of Israel and the nations in the salvation of the world, and how all creation is made new through the mediated work of God in Christ through the Spirit. Paul will show that this salvation cannot come through the physical lineage of Israel, the act of physical circumcision and the deeds of the Law. Paul summarizes all of this as the works of the flesh. Paul will show that salvation cannot come through the flesh, and he begins here by showing that Israel, who had the proper genealogy, the covenant of circumcision and the Law of Moses, could not be righteous in the flesh. They turned away from the One enthroned upon the mountain and bowed down to worship the works of their own hands. We do the same when we seek to be righteous through the works of the flesh. To exchange the glory is to lose it altogether.