Question: "What does it mean to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18)?"
Answer: In the epistle to the Romans, we see the universal need for righteousness (Romans 1:1—3:20), God’s provision of righteousness (Romans 3:21—4:25), the practical implications of righteousness for a person’s life (Romans 5—8), an illustration of how God is working with Israel for their righteousness (Romans 9—11), and God’s expectation for those who are righteous (Romans 12—16). As he begins to develop his argument that all humanity needs God’s righteousness, Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18, NKJV).
Paul asserts the centrality and value of the gospel, the good news about how God can make people righteous and save them through belief in Him (Romans 1:16–17). In the verses that follow, Paul shows that all people need this gospel and God’s righteousness, because all are unrighteous. He explains that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. One of the expressions of that universal guilt is that there are those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
There are three aspects about God evident to everyone through what God has made: His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and His divine nature (Romans 1:19–20). Because He has allowed Himself to be known in those ways, no one has an excuse for their unrighteousness. All are accountable to Him as their Creator.
Even though everyone has an awareness of God, those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness refuse to acknowledge God or give Him thanks. They know the truth about God, but they actively suppress it. These are the ones described in John 3:20: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” They engage in futile speculations, and their hearts are darkened (Romans 1:21). They become fools who worship the creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:22), they dishonor their bodies (Romans 1:23–27), their minds are depraved (Romans 1:28), and they engage in all kinds of evil behavior (Romans 1:29–32).
This progression for those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness shows that God is justified in judging the unrighteous. He has the right to judge. All have fallen short of His holy standard (Romans 3:23), and the wages that all have earned is death (Romans 6:23). Whether or not all suppress the truth in unrighteousness to the same extent, all are guilty. As James explains elsewhere, if a person is guilty of breaking one of God’s commands, he is guilty of all and deserving of judgment (James 2:10).
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop at affirming the guilt of those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. When Paul explains the extent of sin and unrighteousness as universal, he adds some hopeful and critical information.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all can be justified (or declared righteous) by God by believing in Jesus (Romans 3:23–24). All have earned the wages of sin, which is death, but all can also receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life (Romans 6:23). The death Paul is talking about is more than just physical death—it is also separation from God. When Adam first sinned, he was separated from God and was afraid (Genesis 3:10). God had told Adam that if he sinned he would die (Genesis 2:17). After Adam sinned and was already dealing with that consequence, God further explained that Adam would have another consequence that would include gradual yet certain physical death (Genesis 3:19).
Because all of us are born from Adam, we are all sinful in our natures (Romans 5:12, 15) and we often are those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But Jesus died to pay the price we could never finish paying. When we believe in Him, we are given the righteousness of Christ and redeemed from judgment and death (Romans 3:24–28). Paul explains elsewhere that we are saved by God’s grace through belief (Ephesians 2:8). This salvation is a gift of God and not something we can earn ourselves. Instead of being those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and descending into darkness, we are given new life. We are His workmanship now in Christ Jesus. We proclaim the truth and are designed to do good rather than evil things (Ephesians 2:10). By God’s grace and through our faith in Him, God fixed our unrighteousness problem.