Herman Hoeksema was the first editor of the Standard Bearer.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”
My text is intended to be an added reason for the statement of the apostle in verse 16. There the apostle says: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I am not ashamed to preach it, to represent it, to preach it wherever the Lord sends me, even in Rome.”
The first reason for this statement, the apostle gives in verses 16, 17: “for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believefh, for therein is the righteousness of God revealed.” Therefore, he is not ashamed of it. No one needs to be ashamed of a power that accomplishes such an effect. The gospel is no philosophy. It is not a human word. But it is a power.
The other reason why the apostle is not ashamed to preach the gospel is expressed in my text. It might be that, although the gospel is such a power, men have no need of it. It might be that, although the gospel is the revelation of the righteousness of God which is by faith, men are not in need of that righteousness. But the apostle in the text tells us the opposite. Men need that righteousness, for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness, that is, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness.
In order not to be ashamed of a thing that we represent, three things are necessary. In the first place, the thing must do what it is supposed to do; it must do what we claim it will do. In the second place, the thing that we represent must actually be needed. In the third place, that particular thing which we represent must not only be needed, but must also be unexcelled, so that nothing can take its place. This, the apostle means to say in the context. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it serves its purpose; it is an efficacious power. I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is needed, the world being full of unrighteousness. I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is unexcelled. No human wisdom has ever effected what the gospel effects.”
For the wrath of God is still revealed from heaven.
In this light we must look at the text. The text in itself is negative. The purpose of the text lies not in itself. The purpose of the text lies in the gospel. The purpose of the text is to show that our need lies in the gospel and to create the feeling that we need the righteousness of that gospel.
The Wrath that is Revealed
The wrath of God is emphatically the wrath of God. That wrath of God is revealed, the apostle says. God’s wrath is the constant reaction of His holiness against all that refuses to seek and acknowledge Him as the highest good. It becomes active in the will and the power to curse. That is God’s wrath.
God is holy. God’s holiness is probably His most distinct divine attribute. When Scripture says that God is holy, it sometimes means almost the same thing as that God is God. God’s holiness not only means that He is separated from all sin and corruption and unrighteousness, but it also means that He is separated from all creatures. God’s holiness is that virtue in God by which He is entirely other from any creature. The distinctive virtue of God by which He is entirely other from the creature is this, that God is always motivated by the will to seek Himself. God is always motivated by the will to seek Himself because He is the highest good. Because God is the highest good He must seek Himself. What is sin in us, namely, to seek ourselves, is virtue in God. God has His purpose in Himself in all that He wills and does. That is God’s active holiness.
In the second place, because of that fact His holiness reveals itself in a twofold way according as it comes into contact with different objects. God’s holiness is .mercy when it comes into contact with them that seek Him. That is the action of that holiness. That same holiness becomes wrath, that is, divine displeasure, the will to curse, unto them who refuse to seek and acknowledge Him. This is the meaning of the apostle when he says that the wrath of God is revealed. The divine anger, the divine displeasure, the will to curse, is revealed.
We must be careful when we speak of the wrath of God that we have in mind the wrath of God. The wrath of God is not like the wrath of man. The wrath of God is not a sudden, passing passion. God does not flare up in anger. God’s wrath is constant. It never changes. It does not increase or decrease. God’s wrath is not a sudden passion, which soon passes and for which He is then sorry. No, God’s wrath is constant. It is as constant as His holiness.
In the second place, this wrath of God has all the attributes of the divine being. It is the wrath of God. This means that it is omnipresent. It is everywhere. God is everywhere. God touches you; He besets you; He pursues you; He surrounds you. God is omnipresent. So also is God’s wrath.
In the third place, the wrath of God is absolutely efficacious. That is, it cannot be resisted. It does what it wills. And it wills to curse. Therefore, if we would understand the reality of the text, we must understand that the apostle means to say that there is in this world, in this night of darkness in which we live, an operation of the wrath of God in everything. There is an operation of the wrath of God around you and within you. There is in this world a divine “no” to the sin of man. God says “no” always, constantly, eternally, in the world, everywhere. God says “no” to the sin of man. That God says “no” does not mean that He forbids it. When God speaks there is power in that “no.” There is power in that “no” to curse. That “no” does curse, and from it there is no escape.
The Provocation of this Wrath
This “no” is constantly provoked by what men do in the world. The apostle speaks reality. He is speaking of the world. He is speaking of the world as it really is. He is speaking of the cultured, the civilized world. He is not speaking of men in the wilds of Africa. He is speaking of Rome. He is speaking of men who stood at the pinnacle of culture. He is not ashamed to preach the gospel at Rome, for there the wrath of God is revealed. This wrath is revealed today, as it was then. I know, men also hold this truth down in unrighteousness. But the apostle says that there is an actual operation of wrath in the world, because the world provokes it. By what? The apostle says: by ungodliness, unrighteousness, and the wicked attempt to hold down the truth in unrighteousness. The apostle does not mean to say that this wrath is revealed wherever there is unrighteousness and ungodliness and wherever the truth is held down in unrighteousness. Rather, the apostle means that all men hold the truth down in unrighteousness. Men of learning, philosophers, men of culture, men for whom you take off your hat, all men in every station of life hold down the truth in unrighteousness. This is the reality of the world. By this reality it provokes from heaven God’s “no.” What is this provocation? Ungodliness, the apostle says. Ungodliness is the opposite of the fear of God. The fear of God, springing from the love of God, is godliness. If you love God – not a god, not a god that is nice and loving, not a god for whom you can do something, for whom you can work, to whom you can give a dollar in the collection plate. That God is just as much an idol as the heathen gods of wood and stone in Paul’s day. That is not God. No, but God! If -you know who God is, the wholly other, whom you must always fear, whom you must always love, whom you must always obey, whose will you must always do, whose honor you must always seek, and if then you love Him in reverent fear, then there is godliness in the heart.
Ungodliness is just the opposite. Ungodliness is that you do not love Him, do not fear Him, do not care about Him, never reckon with Him, and act as if He never was there. Ungodliness does not mean that you curse and swear. That is hardly decent. But ungodliness is that God is not in all your thoughts. Ungodliness is that you breathe His air, eat His bread, drink His water, and partake of His bounties, and never say, “Thank you.” That is ungodliness. Ungodly also is modern philosophy (I mean philosophy that throws God away for the pleasure of saying that it cannot find Him). Philosophy is ungodliness.
In the second place, the apostle says that it is unrighteousness that provokes God’s wrath. Unrighteousness follows from ungodliness. Unrighteousness in the heart and in the walk is to be contrary to the will of God. Not to will what God wills, that is unrighteousness. The apostle means to say that the whole world is characterized by this ungodliness and unrighteousness. No matter how cultured, how refined, how civilized that world may be, the natural man is ungodly and unrighteous. This is exactly what you and I are by nature. And over against this ungodliness and unrighteousness is God’s terrible “no.” It pursues you; it curses you; it drags you down; and you cannot escape it.
Why do men do this?
Why do men provoke the wrath of God, so that it pursues them and curses them at every step?
Do they not know?
Yes, the apostle says in the third description which he gives of the world, they hold down the truth in unrighteousness. This is an ethical principle. This is the dominating principle in the life of natural man: he holds down the truth in unrighteousness. Not a truth. Men seek after truth, as, for example, the truth that two times two is four. But the truth, they hold down in unrighteousness.
What is the truth? The truth is God. The revelation of God, God as He is, God in His righteousness, in His holiness, in all His divine perfections, this truth, the apostle says, men know. This is what he says in the following verses. Men know this truth. That is why they say that there is no God. That is why we have atheists. Atheism is not ignorance. Do not be deceived by what people call a difference of opinion, or an honest error, when it comes to the truth. When it comes to the truth of God, men hold this truth down; they suppress it in unrighteousness.
What does this mean? It means that men want to live in unrighteousness. They love unrighteousness and hate righteousness. Now comes the truth. As the apostle explains in the following verses “that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them. They know God.” When this truth comes to men, whether they be white, black, yellow, or brown, whether this truth comes to them from creation or from Scripture, or when it comes to them in the very body of His Son, they say, “There is no God.” Why? Because they hold down the truth in unrighteousness. And if the truth persists, as it persisted in Christ, they crucify Him. That is the world. That is you and I.
Do not say, “Yes, but there is common grace.” There is no common grace. Do not try to light an oil lamp in our night. Our night is just as, dark as the night in which Paul preached. Do not try to fix it up. Do not say, “I don’t agree with you.” That is not the question. It is the Word of God. The Word of God tells us that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness. There is no outlet. You cannot change it.
The Revelation of this Wrath
In this night the wrath of God is revealed. The apostle says that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven. We cannot see Him. If we could see God as the text pictures Him, the world would not have the peace that it seemingly has. But God is in heaven. We cannot see Him. But He frowns from heaven. We cannot see Him. He is in heaven. That is, His face is in heaven. But the apostle means to say that in the world this wrath of God, this “no” of God, this will to curse is revealed. This does not mean that God tells the world about it. But it means that this wrath is operating. It is plainly visible. We can plainly see God’s anger. We can see it in its operation. It is plainly evident that God curses. It is revealed everywhere that God curses. Curses what? Sin? No, men! Men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.
This is evident in many things. The apostle in the following verses merely points to the general line in which this wrath is revealed. The apostle draws this line. The wrath of God takes hold of man and forces him, giving him over from corruption to corruption. We can easily see what is the end of that pursuing wrath of God. The end is nothing less than hell. The wrath of God takes hold of the human race. It takes hold of you and me as soon as we become a part of that human race. And it brings the human race from corruption to corruption until the end comes, and the end is hell.
You can see it develop in an individual life, in family life, and in the life of society. You can easily see this in our American family: the wrath of God is sweeping it on and bringing it from corruption to corruption. You can see it today in our economical world, how the wrath of God is bringing it from corruption to corruption, so that today the whole world is crying for an economic savior.” The general line of the development of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness, is the way of destruction. There is no way out. We must go on. There is no escape from this wrath of God. It pursues us every step of the way.
Is there no way out? Yes, in this night God declared the gospel concerning His Son. He declared the gospel concerning His Son, who became flesh. He took upon Himself our sin. He said: “It is my delight to do thy will, O God.” And God raised Him from the dead.
What does this mean? It means that God said, “I stop saying ‘no’ right here. There is no more wrath. I poured it out upon the head of My Son, and My wrath has been burned out in Him. He that believeth in Me shall no more see the wrath of God.” What does this mean? It means that he who says, “There is no hope for me,” and says, “Be merciful to me a sinner,” and seeks his righteousness in the risen Lord, will no more taste the wrath of God. Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.
* Hoeksema preached this sermon in the late 193Os, when the United States and other nations were suffering from severe economic depression – Ed.