How Should We Understand Man/Part 1

By: Dr. Steve Sullivan; ©2004
Would we get a different picture of the nature of man if we looked at ourselves from God’s point of view? Dr. Sullivan begins this new series by looking at how “Paul rakes away the ‘sugar-coated’ niceties and lays bare the diagnosis of man’s problem.”

Paul’s Anthropology from Romans 1-3—Part 1
Romans 1:18


I liken Romans 1:18-23 to the story which Donald Grey Barnhouse told about a young man who wanted to work for the Western Union. He said he would deliver any message anywhere except those which have an unhappy atmosphere. He did not want to deliver telegrams concerning sickness, death or loss of love ones, but only those of congratulation, acceptance or good fortune. However, it is the duty of the messenger to deliver the mes­sage no matter how it will be received. What is true about the messenger for Western Union is to a far greater degree true of the messenger of God. We begin this section by bringing to light the muck and trash of mankind’s depravity. Paul rakes away the “sugar­coated” niceties and lays bare the diagnosis of man’s problem. Though it is an unpleasant message to the hearers of the 21st century, it is the duty and responsibility of the messen­ger of God to deliverer the message.

Friedrich von Schiller, the great German dramatist, poet, and historian once said, “The world’s history is the world’s judgment.” Paul seems to agree for his theme of the latter part of chapter one is the wrath of God. One author has said, “It is doubtful if there is a more perceptive analysis of human nature, its sin, guilt and judgment, than this Pauline one.” I can hear someone say, “but our God is a loving God.” Yes, but if you don’t understand that our God is also just, holy, and full of wrath toward sin, then one has a lopsided misconception of the God of Scripture. It is to God’s wrath and man’s depravity that Paul directs our attention.

Any time one approaches the subject of sin, wrath, judgment and hell, the most fre­quent question arises about the “heathen which has never heard.” God would not judge someone who has never heard, would He? How can God hold the person who has never heard the gospel responsible? Paul deals with this problem specifically in Romans 1:18-23.

The Wrath of God Is Revealed Against Rebellious Man—Rom.1:18

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness”

The word “for” in verse 18 connects us back to the theme of verses 16-17, “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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” Let us try to catch the flow of Paul’s thought. Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Why are you not ashamed, Paul? Because the gospel is “the power of God.” Paul, why is it the “power of God?” Because in the proclamation of the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed and man is imputed this righteousness by placing his faith in Jesus Christ’s atonement at Cal­vary. Or as Paul says, “from faith to faith.” Man needs this status of righteousness because the wrath of God is revealed upon the world. Only those who receive God’s righteousness will escape the wrath of God.

As we enter Romans 1:18 we start the first major section of the book. In Romans 1:18-3:20, we see Paul thoroughly discussing the need for the righteousness of God because of the universality of sin. In chapter one he demonstrates that the Gentiles are under condem­nation. In chapter two through chapter 3:8, he deals with the condemnation of the Jew. Finally, in chapter 3:9-20, he declares the guilt of each and every one in the world. Theolo­gians call the state of man’s sin the doctrine of total depravity or total inability. What does this doctrine mean? It means because of the Fall of Genesis 3, man’s nature is corrupt, perverse and sinful throughout. The word “total” does not mean that each sinner is totally or completely corrupt in his actions and thoughts as it is possible for him to be. No, the word “total” is used to indicate the whole of man’s being has been affected by sin. The corruption of sin has extended to every part of man–his body, mind, will, understanding and emotions. As a result of this corruption, unregenerate man is totally unable to do any thing spiritually good in the sight of God.

Man’s depravity brings the wrath of God. So in verse 18 Paul states the facts of God’s wrath. It is revealed against rebellious man. What do we mean by the wrath of God? It is His punitive justice which is determined to punish sin. Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. says, “The God of the NT, then, is a God whose holy being is revolted by that which is a contradiction of His holiness and He expresses His wrath in punitive justice….It is not vindictive rage, nor is it an emotional reaction to irritated self-concern.” God’s wrath is the control, settled indignation against all sin.

What does it mean that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven?” It does not mean the wrath of God is poured out like in the future tribulation period (70th Week of Daniel in Dan. 9:24-27). This period is future from our view point and the present tense here in verse 18 indicates something that continues so it must be occurring even today. It is true that sin has its consequence which can effect our conscience, health and emotions. Yet, it seems that the meaning of the revealing of God’s wrath is developed in Romans 1:24-32. God inflicts judicial wrath on men and women who abandon Him by giving them over to their unnatural sexual behavior and other debase and degrading vices. This does not mean that God makes them do these things, but He lifts his restraining hand and allows them to enter into it.

Notice that the wrath of God is upon the “ungodly and unrighteous.” The word “ungodly” is best seen in the religious context of idolatry. This is expressed in Romans 1:21-23. The word “unrighteous” stresses more the moral realm which is vividly spelled out in Romans 1:24-32. It is important to notice the order of these two words: “ungodly and unrighteous.” Ungodliness is the turning away from God and His Word which leads to unrighteousness– the practice of immorality. Do you see the significance of this for our day? We have a moral breakdown in our society, but the focus is not to erect ethic classes in all the schools. They have some of those now and it is only the situational ethics with no absolutes to stand on. We have rampant immorality because our nation has turned away from God. This active or passive rejection of God is birthed in our beliefs and convictions of our mind. In other words, the wickedness or immorality is conceived and born in the darkness of unbelief and in the rebellion of ungodliness before it becomes visible in action. Therefore, it is very important to know God and study the doctrine of His Word so that we may act out our beliefs in godliness and not in immorality which is an expression of ungodliness.

Finally, Paul expressed that men suppress or restrain (which is probably the best trans­lation) the truth in unrighteousness. In other words, this is not something they do in igno­rance, but in willful rebellion. The “truth” to which Paul refers is at least the knowledge of God as Creator and Judge, and therefore, it demands their obedience and worship. Yet, man attempts to suppress it, bury it out of sight, or to obliterate it from his memory, but he cannot. The reason for this and the reason for God’s wrath revealed is expressed in Ro­mans 1:19-20. This will be the subject of my next article.


  1. Quotation from S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Bib.Sac. Vol. 129, No. 513, p. 66.
  2. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. Ibid., p. 62.
  3. Steele & Thomas, Romans, p. 155.
  4. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Ibid. p. 65.
  5. C. E. B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary on Romans, Vol. I, p. 112.

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