In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
You know the jokes that begin, “I have good news, and I have bad news.”
A teenage boy walks into the living room and says to his dad: “Dad, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that the airbags in the Volvo work beautifully.”
The Gospel is no joke, but it does contain both bad news and good news. There is a problem — the bad news — to which the Gospel — the good news — is the answer. Paul presents both, the bad and the good, in Romans 1.
The bad news concerns the sin of man — all mankind:
Romans 1:18 (ESV): For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Ungodliness and unrighteousness: in this dismal chapter, Paul chronicles the spiraling downward of all mankind into the grips and depths of ungodliness and unrighteousness. They knew God — ignorance is literally no excuse — but, knowing him, they refused to honor him or thank him or worship him. They chose, instead, to exalt themselves, to worship mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. In consequence, God gave them up, left them to the devices and desires of their own hearts, and things quickly went from bad to worse: dishonorable passions, distorted sexuality, debased minds, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, arrogance, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, ruthlessness — a litany of the fall, to which our only response should be “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” But that was not the human response.
Romans 1:32 (ESV): Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
When Paul says they, when I say they, we both really mean we, because this is a description of the fallen human condition. This is not a description of each individual, but of the family to which each of us belongs. We all share that fallen DNA. And though each of us has been affected by it differently, we are — none of us — immune from it. We all share the family resemblance. This is the bad news.
How does God respond?
Romans 1:18 (ESV): [For] the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
I have good news and I have bad news. Which kind of news is the wrath of God: good news or bad news? I know that in many Christian circles wrath has fallen out of favor; they have opted for a kinder, gentler God, a devoted, dottery, indulgent avuncular figure who, looking at the indiscretions of his young kinfolk, says, “Well, that’s all right, I guess, just as long as they’re happy.” Or else they make a distinction between the brutal, tribal, wrathful, no-so-very-nice God of the Old Testament and gentle Jesus, meek and mild, of the New Testament. The wrath of God: good news or bad news?
Paul makes the case — and, for what it’s worth, I want to make the case also — that the wrath of God is good news, that it lies very near the heart of the Gospel. Now, before I defend my claim, let’s get this straight: God is love (1 John 4:7 ff). God shows wrath, but God is love. Love is of the very essence of God; love is integral to the nature of God and to the relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed, and always will exist, in a relationship of mutual love, a love which overflows to include us. This cannot be said about wrath. God is not wrath. Wrath is not integral to the nature of God. Now, get this; if you get nothing else, get this:
Wrath is love’s proper response to ungodliness and unrighteousness: to sin, to all that would separate man from God, to all that would oppose God and seek to destroy God’s good creation. Wrath is love’s answer of “no” to sin. Wrath is God’s implacable opposition to all that opposes his good and perfect will. Wrath is God’s love in action to redeem and restore his fallen creation.
And that is good news. God will not let sin reign forever. God will not let sin have the final word. God will not leave us to wallow in and die in our sin. God, in his love, shows his wrath against all manner of unrighteousness and ungodliness. Any god that refuses to oppose the corruption of his creation and his people is not worthy to be called God. Any god who fails to show wrath — resolute commitment to judge, redeem, and restore — is not worthy to be called God. Any god who is just too darned nice to say “No!” is no god at all. Thanks be to the Lord our God that he loves us enough to show his wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
What does the wrath of God look like? Not like an angry, bearded, old man in robes with a finger poised over the SMITE button as he looks at the world. Wrath is not an uncontrolled, passionate explosion of anger. Wrath is a resolute commitment to good, to redemption, to restoration. What does the wrath of God look like? It looks like the cross. The cross is love’s response to the sin and brokenness of the world. The cross is the image of the wrath of God, the fullest expression of his self-sacrificing commitment to put to rights all that has gone wrong in the world and in his fallen image-bearers. The cross is precisely how the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. And that, beloved, is great good news. That is gospel. That is why Paul writes:
Romans 1:16–17 (ESV): 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.”
What is our proper response to the wrath of God? Paul is clear: faith. The righteous shall live by faith.
One day, when the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men are old tales, long forgotten in the New Jerusalem, God’s wrath will be no more and his love will be all and in all. On that great day when death and its sting of sin is swallowed up in victory, wrath will be swallowed up in love. On that great day, there will be no bad news. Until then, the righteous shall live by faith.