16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools;23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
If you were stuck in a deserted island and you had to choose just one book from the Bible to understand God's salvation, then the Epistle to the Romans has to be it. Hands down.
The Apostle Paul wrote the letter in 57 AD, probably from Corinth, in preparation for his visit to Rome. (At least five house churches were established in Rome, with congregations composed of majority Gentile believers mixed with a substantial Jewish minority.)
There is an overall theme to the epistle: the explication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- that is, God's plan of salvation for all humankind, for Jews and Gentiles alike.
This theme of the good news of Jesus Christ is introduced by a larger theme that Paul explicates: The righteousness of God. Paul begins by painting a backdrop of what humanity is like: that all have sinned, and hence we need the righteousness that only God can provide. This universal sin-condition of humanity is revealed by the fact that we do not honor God as God. Even without access to the Bible or hearing about Christ, humanity is accountable, is without excuse. Humanity is accountable because the whole created world should have elicited from us a worshipful recognition of God's power and nature. Instead, humanity turned to worship idols -- the false gods of man-made images or images fashioned after creatures.
Therefore, the "wrath of God" has been revealed. "Wrath" as applied to God is not the sort of irrational, hot-tempered outburst we associate with our own expressions of anger. The "wrath of God" is His holy and just antipathy against what is contrary to his good, holy, and loving will and purpose. The wrath of God, as expressed here in this section, consists of God's abandonment of the wicked to their bad choices. In other words, the wrath of God does not come upon humanity as an external act of destruction; rather, it is the permissive act of God of letting sinners live their sinful lives and having them deal with the consequences of their sinful choices.
Thus, the stage is set for the good news that will follow.
But before we leave this devotional, I do want us to consider a bit more about the nature of the "wrath of God." For those of us who think about this notion at all, we sometimes think of it as a devastating act that comes from without, like a bolt of lightning that God sends to judge people. In fact, insurance companies in their literature still use the term "an act of God" to describe unpredictable, natural disasters that destroy property. Of course the insurance companies did not invent this notion. It's a notion that religious people have been using for over a millennium. Something terrible happens and sometimes we think, "that's the judgment of God." Such external acts of God's judgment or wrath are to found in the pages of Scripture, no doubt. But more often than not, if this section in Romans offers us some clue, the form of God's wrath is his allowance for us to give ourselves over to whatever we want to give ourselves over. In God's wrath, ironically, is found God's permissive love. Just as wise parents allow their children to make choices and let them deal with the consequences of their choices -- out of parental love -- so it is the case with God. God permits humanity to choose their way. Much of the blame for bad things should not be placed on God as a form of God's wrath. The blame is much closer to home: people's choices and acts. It is then the mercy of God that comes to rescue us from some of our bad choices and acts.
Let's pray: Father God, we confess you are just and loving. That even in your "wrath," you do not punish us; you simply permit us to live out the messy and bad decisions we've made. We also confess you are merciful. You are merciful in countless ways all throughout our days, much of which we do not discern. Help us to know who you truly are, in terms of your character. Help us to grow in our knowledge of you and also in our love for you. In Christ's name, amen.