What About People Who’ve Never Heard About Jesus?

The Point:  All people are without excuse.

The Wrath of God:  Romans 1:18-25.

[18]  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. [19]  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [20]  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. [21]  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. [22]  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, [23]  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. [24]  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, [25]  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.  [ESV]

[18-25]  “Reflection on the wrath of God [18] raises three questions about its nature, objects and outworking. (1) What is the wrath of God? Human anger, although there is such a thing as righteous indignation, is mostly very unrighteous. It is an irrational and uncontrollable emotion, containing much vanity, animosity, malice and the desire for revenge. It should go without saying that God’s anger is absolutely free of all such poisonous ingredients. It is his deeply personal abhorrence of evil. The alternative to ‘wrath’ is not ‘love’ but ‘neutrality’ in the moral conflict. And God is not neutral. On the contrary, His wrath is His holy hostility to evil, His refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, His just judgment upon it. (2) Against what is God’s wrath revealed? In general, the wrath of God is directed against evil alone. Scripture is quite clear that the essence of sin is godlessness. It is the attempt to get rid of God and, since that is impossible, the determination to live as though one had succeeded in doing so. God’s wrath is directed against the godlessness and wickedness of those people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. What truth has Paul in mind? He tells us in verses 19-20. It is that knowledge of God which is available to us through the natural order. Because Romans 1:19-20 is one of the principal New Testament passages on the topic of general revelation, it may be helpful to summarize how general differs from special revelation. God’s self-revelation through what has been made has four main characteristics. First, it is general because it is made to everybody everywhere, as opposed to special which is made to particular people in particular places, through Christ and the biblical authors. Secondly, it is natural because it is made through the natural order, as opposed to supernatural, involving the incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of the Scriptures. Thirdly, it is continuous because since the creation of the world it has gone on day after day, night after night, as opposed to final and finished in Christ and in Scripture. And fourthly it is creational revealing God’s glory through creation, as opposed to salvific, revealing God’s grace in Christ. What Paul says here is that through general revelation people can know God’s power, deity and glory (not His saving grace through Christ), and that this knowledge is enough not to save them but rather to condemn them, because they do not live up to it. Instead, they suppress the truth by their wickedness [18], so that they are without excuse [20]. It is against this willful human rebellion that God’s wrath is revealed. (3) How is God’s wrath revealed? It is being revealed from heaven now, he says [18], and he goes on to explain it by his terrible threefold refrain God gave them up [24,26,28]. God’s wrath operates not by His intervention but precisely by His not intervening, by letting men and women go their own way. God abandons stubborn sinners to their willful self-centeredness, and the resulting process of moral and spiritual degeneration is to be understood as a judicial act of God. In Paul’s exposition of the outworking of the wrath of God, he develops the same logical process of deterioration, according to the principle he has established in verses 18-20. That is, the general pattern of his argument recurs in verses 21-24, 25-27 and 28-31, repeated with horrifying emphasis. First, Paul asserts the people’s knowledge of God: they knew God [21], the truth of God [25] and the knowledge of God [28]. Secondly, he draws attention to their rejection of their knowledge in favor of idolatry: they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him [21]; they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator [25]; they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God [28]. Thirdly, he describes the reaction of God’s wrath: He gave them over to sexual impurity [24], to shameful lusts [26]; and to a depraved mind [28], leading to antisocial behavior. These are the three stages of the downward spiral of pagan depravity.” [Stott, pp. 71-78].

Righteous Live By Faith:  Romans 1:16-17.

[16]  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. [17]  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."  [ESV]

[16-17]  “These theologically dense verses are made up of four subordinate clauses, each supporting or illuminating the one before it. Paul’s pride in the gospel is the reason why he is so eager to preach the gospel in Rome. This pride, in turn, stems from the fact that the gospel contains, or mediates, God’s saving power for everyone who believes. Why the gospel brings salvation is explained in verse 17: it manifests God’s righteousness, a righteousness based on faith. Then the end of verse 17 provides scriptural confirmation for this connection between righteousness and faith. This chain of subordinate clauses is tied both to what comes before it and to what comes after it (note the for in both verses 16 and 18); from the standpoint of syntax alone, this means that the main statement of the sequence is Paul’s assertion of desire to preach the gospel in Rome [15]. But the syntax does not tell the whole story. Grammatically subordinate clauses frequently stand out in importance by virtue of their content – especially in Greek, with its love of subordinate clauses. In the present case, the language of verse 16a implies a shift in focus. Up to this point, Paul has been telling the Romans about his call to ministry and how that ministry relates to the Romans. Since the gospel is the very essence of his ministry [1-9] and is also the message that Paul wants to bring to Rome [15], it has naturally figured prominently in these verses. Now, however, using verse 16a to make the transition, Paul turns his attention away from his own ministry and focuses it on the gospel as such. Therefore, verses 16-17 serve as the transition into the body of the epistle by stating Paul’s theme. For [16a] explains why Paul is eager to preach the gospel in Rome [15]. But it also picks up the various descriptions of Paul’s commitment to the ministry of the gospel in verses 1-15. The negative form of Paul’s assertion, I am not ashamed of the gospel, may be a literary convention, justifying our rendering it as a straightforward positive statement. However, the foolishness of the cross [1 Cor. 1:18] would make some degree of embarrassment about the gospel natural – particularly in the capital city of the Gentile world. The second clause in verse 16 explains (for) why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. For this gospel, whose content is Jesus Christ, mediates the power of God for salvation. The New Testament background of the term power is undoubtedly to be sought in the Old Testament teaching about a personal God who uniquely possesses power and who manifests that power in delivering and judging His people. Paul uses salvation to refer to spiritual deliverance. Moreover, his focus is eschatological referring to the deliverance from eschatological judgment that is finalized only at the last day. Characteristic, however, of Paul’s outlook is the conviction that these eschatological blessings are, to some extent, enjoyed by anyone the moment he or she trusts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It is because of this “already” focus in Paul’s salvation-historical perspective that he can speak of Christians as “saved” in this life. Salvation often has a negative meaning – deliverance from something – but positive nuances are present at times also, so that the term can denote generally God’s provision for a person’s spiritual need. Particularly, in light of Romans 3:23 and the use of save in 8:24, salvation here must include the restoration of the sinner to a share of the glory of God. The last part of verse 16 introduces themes that recur as key motifs throughout Romans. First, God’s salvific power is available to everyone who believes. Believe and faith are key words in Romans; they are particularly prominent in 3:21-4:25. The lack of an explicit object after believes is also characteristic of Romans. This does not mean that Paul depreciates the centrality of Christ as the object of faith, but that the language of faith has become so tied to what God has done in Christ that further specification is not needed. To believe is to put full trust in the God who justifies the ungodly [4:5] by means of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Though intellectual assent cannot be excluded from faith, the Pauline emphasis is on surrender to God as an act of the will. Pauline faith is not primarily agreement with a set of doctrines but trust in a person. Though not explicit here, another focus of Romans is the insistence that faith is in no sense a work. Therefore, although we must never go to the extreme of making the person a totally passive instrument through whom “believing” occurs – for Paul makes clear that people are responsible to believe – we must also insist that believing is not something we do (in the sense of works) but is always a response, an accepting of the gift God holds out to us in His grace [see especially 4:1-8]. Believing, then, while a genuinely human activity, possesses no merit or worth for which God is somehow bound to reward us; for salvation is, from first to last, God’s work. But this same phrase introduces another recurring motif of Romans: the availability of God’s power for salvation for all who believes. This phrase occurs four other times in Romans [3:22; 4:11; 10:4,11], in each case with particular reference to the breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentile. Paul’s ministry to Gentiles derives from his understanding of the gospel itself as eschatological revelation that fulfills the Old Testament promises about the universal reign of Yahweh. Verse 17 shows why (for) the gospel is God’s saving power to everyone who believes: in it the righteousness of God is revealed. The verb translated is revealed is an important biblical term. Meaning originally ‘uncover’, this verb and its cognate noun, ‘revelation’, are typically used by Paul to refer to the eschatological disclosure of various aspects and elements of God’s redemptive plan. Sometimes this disclosure is an ‘uncovering’ to the intellect of various truths relating to God’s purposes. But in other places, picking up the language and concepts of Jewish apocalyptic, Paul used the word to denote the ‘uncovering’ of God’s redemptive plan as it unfolds on the plane of human history. If the former, ‘cognitive’, meaning is adopted here, then Paul is speaking about the way in which the gospel makes known to us, or informs us, of the righteousness of God. If we accept the more ‘historical’ meaning of ‘reveal’, however, Paul’s point will be that the gospel in some way actually makes manifest, or brings into existence, the righteousness of God. This latter, ‘historical’ meaning is to be preferred in 1:17. This is the most frequent meaning of the verb in Paul, and it matches both the most likely meaning of ‘reveal’ in 1:18 (the wrath of God is revealed from heaven) and the related statement in 3:21: the righteousness of God has been manifested. One key difference between 3:21 and 1:17, however, is the tense of the verb. The perfect tense in 3:21 focuses attention on the cross as the time of God’s decisive intervention to establish His righteousness. In 1:17, on the other hand, the present tense suggests that Paul is thinking of the ongoing process, or series of actions, connected with the preaching of the gospel. Wherever the gospel is being proclaimed, the righteousness of God in its eschatological fullness is being disclosed. But what is this righteousness of God? Occurring only eight times in Romans [1:17; 3:5,21,22,25,26; 10:3 (twice)], the phrase bears an importance out of proportion to its frequency, and for three reasons. First, with the exception of 2 Cor. 5:21, Paul uses the phase righteousness of God only in Romans, so that the phrase might give us a clue to the distinctive message of the letter. Second, the phrase is prominent in precisely those texts that are often considered to state the central theme of the letter: 1:16-17 and 3:21-26. And, third, the meaning of righteousness of God has played a significant role in the interpretation of Paul and of the gospel generally. There are three main options for the meaning of the phrase. (1) The expression might refer to an attribute of God. Under this general heading are to be included two distinct possibilities. According to the first, righteousness is God’s justice or rectitude. The second possibility takes its point of departure from the alleged Old Testament meaning of God’s righteousness: God’s faithfulness, especially to His covenant with Israel. (2) Righteousness of God might refer to a status given by God, a new standing imparted to the sinner who believes. In contrast to both Augustine and most medieval theologians, Martin Luther viewed this righteousness as purely forensic – a matter of judicial standing, or status, and not of internal renewal or moral transformation. This understanding of righteousness of God stands at the heart of Luther’s theology and has been a hallmark of Protestant interpretation. On this view, Paul is asserting that the gospel reveals the righteous status that is from God. (3) Righteousness of God might denote an activity of God. Especially significant are the many places in the Psalms and Isaiah where God’s righteousness refers to His salvific intervention on behalf of his people. If Paul is using this biblical meaning of the word, then his point here would be that the gospel manifests the saving action of God. These options are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, and two or more of them are often combined in the interpretation of 1:17. Three factors influence the decision we reach on this issue: the Old Testament background; the use of righteousness words generally in Romans; and the immediate context. The difficulty is that they do not all point in the same direction. Whereas the Old Testament provides warrant for each of the main alternatives, there is no doubt that the third – God’s saving activity – receives strongest support. When righteousness is attributed to God, it has this meaning more than any other; and it is God’s righteousness in this sense – a saving, vindicating intervention of God – that the prophets say will characterize the eschatological deliverance of God’s people. Paul uses righteousness words in Romans in several different ways. But one thing emerges as characteristic: the connection between righteousness and faith. Paul links righteousness of God closely with the response of faith in 1:17, in 3:21-22, and in 10:3. This ties the idea of righteousness in the phrase righteousness of God to Paul’s use of the word generally in Romans, where it is typically linked to faith. And righteousness is used most often in Romans to denote the gift of righteousness [5:17] – a righteous status that God bestows on the one who believes. Paul’s use of righteousness language in Romans, then, strongly suggests that righteousness of God in 1:17; 3:21,22; and 10:3 includes reference to the status of righteousness given to the believer by God. If these first two factors point in two different directions, the consideration of the context only confuses matters further by giving some support to each possibility. On the one hand, Paul’s use of revealed makes better sense if righteousness of God denotes a divine activity than if it refers to a divine gift. Furthermore, the revelation of God’s wrath in verse 18 appears to parallel verse 17, and wrath in verse 18 is clearly a divine activity. On the other hand, the gift character of righteousness receives support from the prepositional addition from faith for faith and from the quotation of Hab. 2:4 at the end of the verse, where the cognate word righteous designates human status. And this stress on faith as the means by which the righteousness of God is received binds this verse closely to those many others in Romans in which righteousness is clearly a status given to the one who believes. Thus it seems best here to take righteousness of God to include both God’s activity of making right (saving, vindicating) and the status of those who are so made right, in a relational sense that bridges the divine and the human. Bringing together the aspects of activity and status, we can define it as ‘the act by which God brings people into right relationship with Himself’. God’s activity of making right is a purely forensic activity, an acquitting, and not an infusing of righteousness or a making right in a moral sense. To be sure, the person who experiences God’s righteousness does, necessarily, give evidence of that in the moral realm, as Paul makes clear in Romans 6. But, while sanctification and justification are inseparable, they are distinct; and Paul is badly misread if they are confused or combined. To use the imagery of the law court, from which righteousness language is derived, we can picture God’s righteousness as the act or decision by which the judge declares innocent a defendant: an activity of the judge, but an activity that is a declaration of status – an act that results in, and indeed includes within it, a gift. In this sense, the noun righteousness in this phrase can be understood to be the substantival equivalent of the verb ‘justify’. The quotation from Hab. 2:4 confirms the truth that righteousness is to be attained only on the basis of faith. The point in Habakkuk is that faith is the key to one’s relationship to God. The meaning of faith in the New Testament is deepened through its intimate relationship to Christ as the object of faith, but the Old Testament concept, in verses like Gen. 15:6 and Hab. 2:4 especially, shares with New Testament faith the quality of absolute reliance on God and His Word rather than on human abilities, activities, or assurances.” [Moo, pp. 63-79].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the wrath of God? Against what is God’s wrath revealed? How is God’s wrath revealed?

2.         Compare and contrast general and special revelation? Why does God hold all people accountable for acknowledging His existence even though they do not have access to His special revelation? John Calvin often referred to general revelation as the theater of God’s glory (e.g., Institutes, 1.6.2; 1.14.20; 2.6.1). Seek to become more aware of God’s glory in creation.

3.         In verse 15, Paul states his eagerness to preach the gospel. Why was Paul eager to preach and why should we be eager to witness to the gospel [see 16-17]?

4.         What are the four subordinate clauses of 1:16-17 and how do they connect and illuminate each other?

5.         Paul writes that salvation is for everyone who believes [16]. What does Paul mean by believes?

6.         What does Paul mean by the righteousness of God? What are the three main options for understanding the meaning of the phrase?


The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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