This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Why Does Paul Glory in the Gospel?

The following article is taken from a series of talks that the author gave at the Banner of Truth Conference in Sydney, February 21-24, 2023. We are very grateful to Mr Strivens for allowing us to publish talks with The Australian Evangelical.

The theme of this conference is, ‘Not Ashamed of the Gospel’, taken from Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16-17. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, by which he meant, of course, that he rejoiced and gloried in the gospel – he had great confidence in the gospel.

I trust that we have the same confidence. It is my fear, however, that, in Britain at least, the evangelical world is in danger of suffering a loss of confidence in the gospel. We still believe it and preach it, but we are tempted to cut off some of the sharp corners (as we see them), smooth down the rough edges, try to make it a little more acceptable and attractive to people, all with the good and sincere intention of seeing more people come to Christ.

Let me say something briefly about how I see this manifesting itself on the UK scene. What I have to say is largely anecdotal. It is based on my very limited knowledge and experience of what is going on in British evangelicalism. I spend most of my time in the town where my church is and most of my Sundays preaching to my own congregation. I have not conducted any kind of systematic research on this question, but I read fairly widely in the evangelical media and I talk to other pastors and Christian believers to try to understand what is happening and it is from sources such as those that I draw these conclusions about the state of the evangelical and reformed church in Britain. I want then to turn to what I believe will help us to regain confidence in the gospel – or maintain it if we have not lost it – as we examine why Paul was able to boast and glory in the gospel, from his letter to the Romans.


Four signs that evangelicals may have lost a degree of confidence in the gospel


  1. emphasis on social work. I don’t believe that evangelical churches in Britain on the whole have given in to a social gospel. I also firmly believe that Christians should be active in their communities to help those in need, in so far as they are able to do so. But there does seem to have been an increased emphasis in church life on social work, expressed in a manner which sometimes seems to place it on the same, or at least a similar level, as the preaching of the gospel, in terms of its importance in church life.
  2. pragmatics. We have become very pragmatic, when it comes to determining how to go about the task of evangelism. Much of what I read on the subject seems to be framed in terms, crudely, of what is likely to work, rather than in terms of what the Bible instructs. We tend to assume that we all know very well what the Bible teaches in the area of gospel proclamation and that all we need to do is work out the most effective way, in our particular context and circumstances, of putting that into action.
  3. reluctance to challenge. I wonder if our culture’s intense focus on the self as the ultimate authority has made us reluctant to challenge people head-on on gospel issues. There seems to have been a considerable lightening of tone in our meetings and in church life generally – we appear to shrink from portraying what we do as overly serious; anything that looks like solemnity tends to be downplayed and things are put across rather in terms of fun and enjoyment.
  4. few conversions. Ever since my conversion, about 45 years ago, the evangelicalism that I have known has relentlessly emphasised evangelism – as the number one duty of the individual Christian in his daily Christian life, to seek to witness to family, friends and strangers, and as the chief activity of church life to which the most significant proportion of time, energy and resources is to be given. It is striking and sobering that, so far as can be discerned from the statistics available, the proportion of the UK population that could be claimed as evangelical has remained fairly static, or fallen, over the last few decades. Of course there may be many reasons for this and conversion in the end is in the Lord’s hands not ours, but still, one possible factor may be that we are simply not proclaiming the good news as we should – because we have lost confidence in the gospel.

Your experience of evangelicalism may, of course, be very different from mine. And the factors that I have just listed may not be of relevance to your situation. I am simply reflecting what I know of my own context in the UK – and no doubt there would be many in my country who would contest some or all of what I have said. But that is how I see things.

What is behind such a loss of confidence in the gospel? Is there some underlying factor that we could identify? I believe that there is. I fear that evangelicalism – at least in Britain – has suffered over recent decades from a neglect of the doctrine of God. Recent controversies about the doctrine of God – especially in terms of the simplicity, eternity and immutability of God and questions relating to subordinationism among the persons of the Trinity – indicate that contemporary evangelicalism has, to some extent, lost touch with the historic, orthodox doctrine of God as believed by generations of Christian believers from a wide spectrum of denominational backgrounds. This is a most serious matter.

More generally, I believe that there is no longer the focus upon God for his own sake – his character and works – that evangelicals in previous generations enjoyed. I suspect that we do not preach or hear very many sermons on the being and character of God; the more contemporary hymns and songs that we sing do not reflect so much as older ones did on these great themes; and our prayers are focused more on our needs than on the glory and majesty of God. We are, I fear, in danger – in the midst of all our church activities, meetings and worship, as well as our private devotional lives – of losing sight of the living God.

I believe that this factor is likely to be the key to all the rest – and also the key to regaining the kind of confidence in the gospel that Paul clearly enjoyed. I believe that we need urgently to recover a sound, biblical doctrine of God as a necessary, constant and integral part of our understanding of the gospel, of daily Christian experience and of the life of the church. If that sounds an odd thing to say, consider for a moment what you first think of when you think about sharing the gospel with an unbeliever – what are the main points that you believe to be vital to communicate to that person? Do they include anything substantial about who God is? Or consider your own faith and walk with Christ – how much of your prayer life is taken up with meditation on and worship of God for who he is, rather than thanksgiving and prayer for what he has done or could do? To what extent in your thinking is a godly life wrapped up in and dependent upon a clear understanding of what God has done for the sinner in Christ? How much of our time meeting as the gathered people of God for worship in fact focuses simply on God for who he is? These are questions worth pondering.

Over twenty years ago, Edward Donnelly wrote that we have rewritten the answer to the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to read, ‘God’s chief end is to satisfy man and to provide for him forever’. ‘Even in evangelical churches’, he continues, ‘the impression is too often given that God exists to make us happy, to solve our problems, to answer our prayers, to heal our sicknesses, to improve our marriages, to help us to keep to a diet.’1Edward Donnelly, Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), p. 13. What is perhaps the most popular evangelistic course – in Britain at least – deals with the subject of sin primarily from the perspective of the suffering that sin brings to us, rather than the offence that it is to God.

Paul, in contrast, gave priority, as I hope to show in these three papers, to the doctrine of God. This governed both his understanding and his exposition of the gospel of Christ. That, I argue, is why he had such confidence in it. It did not depend to any degree upon humanity, but upon the unchanging, omnipotent God. In Romans, Paul unfolds his understanding of the gospel explicitly in terms of various aspects of the character of God. It is the doctrine of God that drives Paul’s gospel, it is the doctrine of God that means that Paul is able to boast and glory in the gospel and it is the doctrine of God that you and I today, I suggest, need to recover if we are to regain the confidence in the gospel that we need in our day.

So I am dividing my time at this conference into three parts:

 Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel (1) The wrath of God (Rom. 1-3)

Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel (2) The righteousness of God (Rom. 3-8)

Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel (3) The wisdom of God (Rom. 9-11)


The Wrath of God

Paul’s focus on God can be seen right at the start of the main substance of his letter, Romans 1:16-18. Paul glories in the gospel, because it is the power of God to save, v. 16. For in the gospel, he continues, the righteousness of God is revealed, v. 17. And then, immediately after, he begins his exposition of this gospel by speaking about the wrath of God, v. 18. His emphasis is unmissable. He does not begin with our needs, nor does he start by spelling out the benefits that the gospel brings, nor does he talk of what we need to do. He begins with God. So let us do likewise – and consider together what Paul the apostle has to say, in relation to the gospel, firstly, about the wrath of God, v. 18. This opening section of his gospel exposition runs through to chapter 3, verse 20.

Let us consider five things that Paul says in these verses about the wrath of God.

1. God’s wrath is now being poured out on sinners. He uses a present tense ‘is being poured out’, 1:18. This is not the last judgment that Paul is speaking of. It leads to that and feeds into it and teaches us about it. Paul refers to it in 2:16. Nor is he speaking, as some have suggested, purely about his own day, when the behaviour that he describes was certainly prevalent. No, he is describing how God is dealing with our fallen world now, today. He uses a ‘frequentative present covering in its sweep the whole field of human experience’. This is what is happening in our generation, and every generation until Christ’s return. This is ‘God’s permanent attitude to sin’.2R. V. G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God (Tyndale Press, 1951), pp. 10-11. We need to consider this seriously, for those who are outside Christ in our day.

2. the nature of God’s wrath. Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Romans, says that God’s wrath is his ‘punitive justice, his determination to punish sin’; Calvin says something similar. Clearly that is correct, so far as it goes. But John Murray – I think rightly – argues that this is insufficient, as ‘to equate wrath with its effects and virtually eliminate wrath as a movement within the mind of God’; it ‘weakens the biblical concept of the wrath of God, to deprive it of its emotional and affective character’. ‘Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.’ ‘There is a positive outgoing of the divine displeasure.’3John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Eerdmans, 1959-65), 1:34-36. God’s wrath is not merely a mechanistic, automatic, impersonal response to sin (contra C. H. Dodd, who saw God’s wrath as ‘not … the attitude of God to man but … the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’),4C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London, 1932), p. 23, as quoted in Tasker, Wrath of God, p. 16. but personal, from his very being, in human terms deeply felt. God’s wrath is not arbitrary, irrational, uncontrolled, out of proportion, as our anger usually is. Rather, it is settled, determined, controlled and fully justified.

3. the terror of God’s wrath. God’s wrath is a burning fire;5Dt. 32:22; Ps.2:11; Ps. 21:9; Ps. 58:9; Is. 30:27; Jer. 15:14; 17:14. References in this section are taken from Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Baker, 2003-2008), 2:222-23. it is fierce.6Dt. 13:17; 2 Kings 23:26; Pss. 6:1; 38:1; Is. 13 None may stand before his anger: ‘But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?’ (Ps. 76:7). God’s wrath brings terrors, it consumes: ‘For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed; it wastes and destroys.’ (Ps. 90:7).7See further Dt. 6:14-15; 32:22-27; Ps. 102:9-11; Jer. 10:24. God’s wrath expresses his fury (Jer. 42:18), his hatred of sin (Dt. 16:22; Jer. 44:4); his furious vengeance (Nah. 1:2) – ‘vengeance is mine’ (Dt. 32:35).8And see Pss. 94:1; 149:7; Is. 34:8; 63:1-6; Jer. 46:10; 51:11. The Lord God is a ‘consuming fire, a jealous God’ (Dt. 4:24). There are extended passages in Scripture detailing what happens when God is angry with a people. With his own covenant people in the OT, he speaks of his wrath for their unbelief (Dt. 32:22-27); and with other nations, he expresses his strong displeasure, as against Babylon in Is. 13:6-13.

This is the Old Testament background that Paul would have had clearly in his mind as he wrote to the Christians in Rome about the wrath of God. That concept is accordingly echoed in many places in the New Testament, most of all in the teaching of Jesus himself, but also throughout the epistles.91 Pet. 1:17; Heb. 12:29; Acts 5:9; 12:22-23; Lk. 12:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:10; Matt. 11:21-24; Lk. 21:23; Matt. 18:34-35; Jn. 2:17; Col. 3:5-7.

4. the object of God’s wrath. His wrath is directed, v. 19, at ‘all human ungodliness and unrighteousness/injustice’. This is rooted in fallen humanity’s suppression of the knowledge of God, turning away from worshipping him, to idols, vv. 19-23. The first sin that Paul identifies is the failure to glorify or give thanks to God, 1:21. False worship, idolatry, was the first thing that Paul identifies as bringing upon humanity the wrath of God, 1:23, 25.

Paul says that God’s wrath is manifested in his handing idolators over to deeper and deeper sin. So God hands sinners over to pour out our sinful desires on physical objects, worshipping the creation instead of the creator, vv. 24-25. God handed them over again to dishonourable desires, especially in bodily and sexual uncleanness, manifested particularly in homosexual behaviour by both women and men, vv. 26-27. Then there is a further handing over, to all kinds of sinful behaviour – a terrible list, vv. 28-31, with a final charge, v. 32. This is a frightening aspect of the wrath of God – the handing over. God leaves us to the outworking of our own sinfulness – in greater and deeper sin, heaping more and more wrath upon ourselves as a result.

But Paul has not finished. He goes on then to prove, in chapter 2, that Jews who pride themselves on their knowledge of God’s law as well as Gentiles who have the work of the law in their consciences are both guilty before God. He turns from these obvious, moral, outward sins to address religious people – like us – who think of themselves as respectable, law-abiding, moral people. He accuses them of hypocrisy, because they ‘do the same things’, 2:1, 3. This convicts us. We condemn the homosexuals, those given over to transgender ideas, etc., but do we consider our own sexual sin – internet abuse, thoughts, imaginations, fantasies, maybe actual sexual sin but committed privately and kept secret. We do the same things, says Paul, and equally bring down upon ourselves the wrath and judgment of God, 2:2-3. We thereby despise God’s kindness and patience, v. 4. Once again, this is all framed within Paul’s understanding of the nature and character of God. His perspective is radically God-centred.

So we find the finger of God pointing at us in all our respectability and supposed morality. ‘You have no excuse’, 2:1. ‘The judgment of God’, 2:2, which you will not escape, v. 3. God’s kindness, forbearance, patience, which you have presumed upon, v. 4. He speaks of treasuring up wrath for the day of wrath, v. 5; of God’s righteous judgment, vv. 6-8; of tribulation and distress, v. 9. He reminds us that there is no partiality with God, v. 11. He highlights the dangers of perishing, of being judged, v. 12. God is the one who judges secrets, v. 16. It is a terrible thing to dishonour God, v. 23, or to be guilty of blaspheming him, v. 24. God is absolutely righteous, faithful in inflicting wrath for such sins, 3:1-8.

And so, whether obviously immoral or inwardly corrupt, we are all, in ourselves, by nature, the objects of God’s most terrible wrath.

5. the end of God’s wrath. God’s wrath leads to judgment, the ‘day of wrath’ (2:5, 8-9, 16).10See also Heb. 9:27; Acts 17:31; 2 Pet. 3:7. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). He does not willingly afflict (Lam. 3:33). He desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). He is patient with the sinner. Yet judgment will come, if there is no repentance.

And God’s judgment is entirely righteous (3:5, 10-20). ‘Shall not the God of all the earth do right?’ He shall. That is the whole point about the last judgment – it is the declaration and the establishment, finally, of righteousness in the universe. All wrongs will be put to right. Sin will be punished – entirely, to the last drop, finally, once and for all. All that happens on that day will be – and will be seen to be – entirely right and good. Judgment as God administers it on that day will not be excessive or out of proportion to the sins committed; nor will it be lenient and indulgent. It will be strictly and absolutely right, precisely what is deserved – no more and no less.

Note that that this judgment, at the end of the age, will be through Christ according to the gospel, 2:16, a perhaps unexpected statement. Christ’s involvement in judgment is clear throughout Scripture, however, as Paul explained to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:31) there is such a thing as the ‘wrath of the Lamb’ (Rev. 19:13-16). We must rid ourselves of any idea that it is the Father alone who is angry with our sin while the Son simply loves us and comes to save us from the Father’s wrath. That would be to blow a disastrous hole in the doctrine of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are united in their wrath against sin and in their determination that it be judged, righteously, fully. ‘Judgment is the act of the whole undivided Trinity. The Father and Spirit judge, as well as Christ, in respect of authority and consent, but it is the act of Christ, in respect of visible management and execution.’11John Flavel, Works, 1:525, as quoted in Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (Bryntirion Press, 1991), p. 85. The Father has committed all judgment to the Son (Jn. 5:22). Christ is King and so Judge of all.

So what is the result of this? Where does this take Paul? To the inevitable conclusion, 3:19-20 – we are silent and guilty before God. God’s law shuts our mouths and renders us guilty before God. We are all guilty, Jew and Gentile, condemned, 3:10-18. Unable to stand before God to whom we are accountable and guilty, condemned, 3:19-30. Paul brings us to the ground, face down before a holy God, with nothing to say for ourselves, v. 19.

This is part of the gospel of Christ. An essential part. It forms the backdrop, the context in which the gospel comes to us. Necessarily so, for otherwise there would be no need of a message of the proclamation of peace, if we were not already at enmity with God. This is the reality that Paul wants to drive home in our minds and our thinking. This is the state that we are in – guilty, with nothing to say before God. No excuse, no justification, nothing. We need to see that, so that we throw ourselves wholly on God’s grace in Christ, not thinking that we can bring anything at all to contribute to our salvation. Only if we see the desperate nature of our condition in sin will we do this.

This is why Paul gloried in the gospel. It shows us where we truly stand in relation to a holy and righteous God who holds us guilty before him and before whom we have nothing to say for ourselves.

The question for us is, is this where our gospel brings us? Is this what we preach? Is this what we believe? How prominent a note is all this in our evangelism? In our own thinking about the gospel? Have we grasped it, internalised it, taken it truly to heart?

We do not necessarily need to follow Paul’s lead in the order in which we deal with the wrath of God – it does not need to come first – it does not always come first in the preaching in Acts. Nor do we need to think that people must necessarily have an overwhelming sense of God’s wrath and of conviction of sin before they may come to Christ in faith and be saved. This is not about the order of events. It is asking whether this theme, the wrath of God, is present at all in our thinking about the gospel and in our preaching of it.

Do we aim, in our gospel preaching, to bring our hearers to the point where they feel themselves to stand before a holy God, with nothing to say, guilty before him? And if that is not our aim, are we actually preaching the gospel? Or have we, in fact, lost confidence in the gospel that Paul preached, in which he gloried?

Series Navigation“Why Does Paul Glory in the Gospel?”: an Answer From the Doctrine of God in the Letter to the Romans – Part 2 >>
  • 1
    Edward Donnelly, Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), p. 13.
  • 2
    R. V. G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God (Tyndale Press, 1951), pp. 10-11.
  • 3
    John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Eerdmans, 1959-65), 1:34-36.
  • 4
    C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London, 1932), p. 23, as quoted in Tasker, Wrath of God, p. 16.
  • 5
    Dt. 32:22; Ps.2:11; Ps. 21:9; Ps. 58:9; Is. 30:27; Jer. 15:14; 17:14. References in this section are taken from Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Baker, 2003-2008), 2:222-23.
  • 6
    Dt. 13:17; 2 Kings 23:26; Pss. 6:1; 38:1; Is. 13
  • 7
    See further Dt. 6:14-15; 32:22-27; Ps. 102:9-11; Jer. 10:24.
  • 8
    And see Pss. 94:1; 149:7; Is. 34:8; 63:1-6; Jer. 46:10; 51:11.
  • 9
    1 Pet. 1:17; Heb. 12:29; Acts 5:9; 12:22-23; Lk. 12:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:10; Matt. 11:21-24; Lk. 21:23; Matt. 18:34-35; Jn. 2:17; Col. 3:5-7.
  • 10
    See also Heb. 9:27; Acts 17:31; 2 Pet. 3:7.
  • 11
    John Flavel, Works, 1:525, as quoted in Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (Bryntirion Press, 1991), p. 85.