Scripture Reading: Romans 1:18-32, Proverbs 1:7, 2 Timothy 3:1-9
In all of Paul’s letters, there are few bleaker passages than the one we encounter in Romans 1:18-32. Here Paul paints a picture of total depravity, gleeful rebellion, and blind rejection of God—all of which incur the deserved wrath of God. It’s dark and it’s grim, but there is one thing you especially need to know about it:
It’s your story.
If you’re like me, that might sound strange. Like many lifelong Christians, I was raised in the church, a rule-following “good girl” who never colored outside the lines. My life looks nothing like Paul’s portrait of self-destruction. And yet, his language is intentionally vague. He never specifies who this passage is about. Scholars have speculated—perhaps it’s about Adam and Eve, or perhaps he is describing non-Christians. But most scholars, like Dr. Douglas Moo, a professor at Wheaton College, interpret his words more broadly: “[Paul] has in view human beings generally, prone to turn away from God because of the original fall into sin.”
In other words, this passage is about us.
Paul speaks of the “godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”—the people who struggle with “envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice” (vv.18, 29). And those people he’s describing? Well, they’re us—all of us. Paul isn’t singling out a particular group of people; he’s diagnosing the human condition.
Left to our own devices, sin distorts our souls like water-warped wood. For every human ever born, that is our story. At least, it would have been our story had God not intervened.
What we see in Romans 1:18-32 is a vision of our fate, had God not planned our rescue. Without God’s grace we were all “by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). To understand exactly what these harsh words mean, we must be careful not to confuse God’s “wrath” with human forms of anger. Theologian John Stott describes human anger as “irrational and uncontrollable emotion, containing much vanity, animosity, malice, and the desire for revenge.” God’s wrath, on the other hand, “is absolutely free of all such poisonous ingredients.”
By comparison, God’s wrath is His “holy hostility to evil.” This hostility is not arbitrary. God does not pick rules out of a hat, and smite those who fail to conform. No, God directs His hostility squarely at the destructive effects of sin. Sin steals, kills, and destroys everything it touches, including the crown jewel of His creation: humankind. It degrades and dismantles us, and God’s response to this cosmic terrorism is total opposition. God opposes sin because He is good and righteous and just.
He also opposes it because of His love. Like a father’s white-knuckle rage at his son’s addiction, or a mother’s howling grief at her daughter’s eating disorder, God’s wrath is an expression of His love. It is hostility towards that which devours His children whole.
This side of eternity, we may never understand the mysterious balance between God’s active condemnation and the natural consequences of human sin. But together, these two elements constitute God’s righteous wrath against all human sin. That is our story—every one of us. Apart from the grace of God, we would only choose death.
Whenever we read these words, we must ask the Spirit to reveal ourselves within them, because we cannot have the good news without the bad news. We cannot call it “salvation” if we are not being saved from something—namely, ourselves. Self-ruin is the only place our sin will ever take us. But, thanks to Jesus, it doesn’t have to.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, mom, and she holds a PhD on women and calling. She is a regular contributor to Propel, blogs at SheWorships.com, and her first book releases in October 2017.