CHAPTER 2 - Part 1
ROMANS 1:18 - 32
A portrait of unrighteousness
Romans 1:18 - 3:20 gives us a spiritual portrait of what men are outside of Christ. It is an ugly picture upon which we would prefer not to linger. We can think of this passage as an essay upon the total depravity of men. A passage like Ephesians 2:1-6 declares the principle that men are spiritually dead and totally incapable of doing anything that pleases God nor can they do anything about the awful penalty they must face for their sins. The message of Romans is similar, describing the attitudes and actions of men which reveal them to be as dead as the Bible says they are.
The hideous and offensive nature of this section of the Bible more than any other gives us clear evidence that the Bible is truly God's Word and not the work of men. Men would never write such things about themselves nor dare admit that what they read in Romans 1:18 - 3:20 is an accurate assessment. It is offensive and disturbing to all men. From a human point of view this passage is embarrassing and inappropriate in polite society. It is insensitive, trampling upon men's dignity and self respect. Only God is willing to be that honest, because He knows that only the truth will help men. God knows the spiritual peril of all men, and He alone is kind enough to tell them exactly what they need to know so that they can be motivated to seek the help they desperately need.
Romans 1:18 - 3:20 helps us understanding the necessity for the complete sovereign election of God, not election in the sense that God saw in advance who would believe in Him, but election in the sense that if God did not decide who would be saved and then save them, no one would be saved. The reason is that no one, absolutely no one, is able to do anything about their wretched spiritual condition. More than that, no one, no one at all, wants to please God, that is, not on His terms. There is no end to the wickedness of men and this passage does the best job toward educating us about the depth and breadth of the sin of men. Only when we understand that will we understand why God sends His wrath upon sinners and why they need the mercy of God. Therefore, this passage is the best starting place for understanding the gospel.
One way to help us organize Romans 1:18 - 3:20 and keep the logic clear is to think of the passage as the transcript of the proceedings of a trial, in which God is the Judge, man is the defendant and the Law is the prosecutor. If we were to imagine what goes on in a courtroom, we could think of the verses as being organized in the following way.
Romans 1:18 describes the arraignment. Both the indictment and expected penalty for the offense are given. The charge is unrighteousness, which carries the heavy punishment of the wrath of God.
In Romans 1:19-2:29, we hear the arguments for the prosecution.
1. One accusation, found in Romans 1:19-23, is that men rejects the witness of God in creation.
2. Another accusation, presented in Romans 1:24-31, is that men reject the witness of God in themselves as the highest form of creation. By means of both their sinful thoughts and actions, men deny that they were created in the image of God.
3. A third argument for the prosecution is found in Romans 2:1-3. Inasmuch as men have a propensity to be critical and judgmental of others, they assent to the fact there are standards. Men set and then fall into their own trap, for they are as much a sinner as those whom they condemn. Therefore, if men agree that others ought to be held accountable for their actions, then they, being sinners, condemn themselves.
4. In Romans 2:4,5, the prosecution accuses men of rejecting the kindness of God.
The harsh and uncompromising list of accusations might seem that the prosecutor has lost control and is being carried away by a hatred for the defendant. Does this describe a kangaroo court that is only facade? Is the trial a set up and the verdict decided before the case has come to court? Is the trial simply a showcase meant to ridicule men? No! Romans 2:7-13 teaches that God is absolutely fair. The trial is not rigged nor are the prosecutor or Judge prejudiced in any way.
5. Romans 2:14-16 continues the arguments for the prosecution, focusing particularly upon the Gentiles who do not have the written Law of God, but who, nevertheless, have the Law written in their hearts, that is, their consciences.
6. Romans 2:17-29 focuses upon the Jews who have the true religion. The damaging evidence here is the record of men's rebellion against the revealed will of God, the Bible. We ought to add that both of the last two arguments could really apply to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
7. We could take Romans 2:28 and 29 as another accusation. In that sense, the idea of the verses could be that this is what God has expected of all along. They are a reminder of the high standard which men have not and cannot attain. These verses that talk about the heart, showing how very far men are in fulfilling the will of God.
Romans 3:1-8 presents the inadequate arguments for the defense together with the proper answers to those arguments.
1. In verses 1 and 2, men fault institutions which God has set up, such as the church, for being weak and unable help them. The answer is that men should look, not to the church, but into the Word of God, of which the church is a steward.
2. In verses 2 and 3, men fault "the faith," that is, the faith that is found in the Word of God. Men accuse the Bible of being ineffective. The idea of the accusation is that if men are not good, then it is the Bible's fault because it is too weak to make men good. The answer is that there is nothing wrong with the Law of God. The Law is true and men are sinners. Men are the ones on trial, not the Word of God.
3. In verse 5, men blame God Himself for overreacting to their sin, because it affords an opportunity for God to display His righteousness in contrast to their own sin. Also men complain that God is not right in His judgment, that He is not applying His Word fairly, that He ought to grade on a curve or expect a lower standard of behavior to accommodate men's ability and circumstances. The answer, in verse 6, is simply that God is the Judge and He must judge. If God's righteousness shines brightly next to men's sin, it is because men are sinful and so deserve judgment, not pardon, for highlighting God's holiness. Romans 3:7-8 shows the foolishness of men by taking their absurd logic to its ridiculous conclusion. If men would have their way, then good would be evil and evil would be good. Romans 3:9 is the final statement of the prosecution. The Law rests its case with the Judge. All men are charged guilty, whether they be Jews or Gentiles. No one escapes the accusing finger of the law.
The verdict and the Judge's comments are found in Romans 3:10-20. These verses not only declare the verdict of God's Word, they also describe the evil nature of the criminal. Men are found guilty as charged for the sins that they commit. Additionally, they are condemned for who they are, sinners.
This sermon on the unrighteousness of men is long. It as if God were rubbing men's noses in their wickedness. It is as if, like the Israelites in the wilderness, they must drink and fill their belly with the ground up calf to which they bowed. God wants men to get weary and sick of their rebellion. This sermon is an extremely sharp part of the sword of the spirit. It cuts men's heart to the core exposing them for all that they are. It cuts between people, breaking some so that they flee to God, crying for mercy and hardening others so that they flee from God, hating the light of the truth which reveals their evil deeds and their wicked heart.
Verse 18, "For the wrath of God is revealed"
The word "wrath" (orge) refers to the judgment of God. Strictly speaking, wrath in the sense of punishment can only descent upon a man after he has been tried and found guilty. The trial that determines guilt is a future event, at the last day (I Thess. 1:10, Rev. 6:17). Jesus already endured God's wrath for all of His people. However, wrath will be God's judgment day response to the wickedness of all those who are not saved.
Sometimes the Bible speaks of God's wrath as a present reality, as for example in this verse. However, we must be careful how we think of this. We must not confuse the present deterioration of the world and its inhabitants with the wrath of God. The world is under God's curse as a result of sin, but punishment has not come because the trial at the end of time has not been held. The curse is a picture of God's wrath, but it is not the wrath that oppresses men in Hell forever.
The use of the present tense does mean that we now can witness the full wrath of God. Rather it means that the future wrath of God is a sure thing, that it is anticipated as a certainty even though it has not yet come. In the wretchedness of the human condition a token of that awful punishment can be seen.
Believers suffer because of consequences of sin, in part due to their sinful weaknesses and in part because they are heir to the physical decay of the world in which they live. Therefore, we may not necessarily conclude that a person's individual experience of trauma is a harbinger of his punishment under the wrath of God to come. Nevertheless, many people who will never be saved, and who stubbornly refuse to obey God live lives which are a testimony to their rebellion, as they reap all of the natural consequences of their lustful and hateful ways. Therefore, one clear revelation of that future wrath of God is seen in the wretched and perverted lives of the people who mock God's will. They show that are people who are devoted to wrath and so the Bible uses the present tense to highlight the certainty of their fate, that they have an appointment with God's wrath which they will keep if they do not become saved (Rom. 2:5).
Romans 1:18 teaches us that we must start the message of the Gospel, the "Good News," the way the Bible does. The Gospel is only good news because there is bad news first. Wrath awaits sinners. What is there to do? The Gospel is the good news of relief that there is an escape, a rescue from the danger of God's eternal wrath. This is the point of salvation (Rom. 5:9, II Cor. 5:11).
We must always start with the Bible's concept of need. People often try to find the Christ or the theology to fit the perceived need. Some need an ethical example. For them, Christ is a teacher. Some need relief from physical oppression. For them, Christ is a social revolutionary. Some need relief from sickness. For them, Christ is a miraculous healer. However, we must start with the Biblical concept of need. The desperate need of man is protection from the wrath of God. Nothing else matters.
As an illustration of the spiritual situation of sinners, let us imagine a man clinging to a log in the middle of a rushing river which is heading towards a tremendously high and powerful waterfall. Imagine that the man is draped over the log and is unconscious. What is his peril? Is it not that he will be swept over the waterfall and crushed to death on the rocks below? Imagine further that another man stands on the shore as the condemned man floats by. If the man on the shore lassos the log and pulls the other man to shore and revives him, we can say that he has been saved. That is an accurate description of the word "saved." A great peril has been averted by means of the work of another.
Men's spiritual situation is similar to the illustration above. Men are in great danger. God's wrath is about to descend upon them. God's wrath is not therapeutic out of His love to show us how to obey, it is out of His anger in response to men's unwillingness and inability to obey. God's wrath is a just response to men's sin. Salvation is a rescue from that wrath, by grace.
We cannot use the wrath of men, with which we are so familiar, to help us understand the wrath of God. God is not angry as men are. Men's anger comes from impatience. But God is never in a hurry. He always waits for the right time and never rushes any of His actions. Men's anger comes from weakness and frustration. But God is Almighty and always fulfills His will. Men's anger comes from fear. But God is never intimidated. He is even willing to sacrificially risk the horror of Hell for the benefit of His people. Men's anger comes from a wounded ego. But God is never retaliatory or spiteful. He is holy and just, reacting to the insults of men in perfect justice.
The terror and horror of God's wrath is equal to the wickedness of men's sin. Men are as wickedly ungodly and unrighteous as the wrath of God implies.
The preposition "from" is a translation of the Greek word ap that means "away from." The point of the words "from Heaven" is that Heaven is the source of wrath. Wrath descends away from heaven toward sinners (II Kings 1:10,12, Luke 17:29, Rev. 8:5).
We may be inclined to wonder about the connection between wrath and heaven. Are wrath and Heaven compatible with each other? How could wrath come out of the perfect and beautiful dwelling place of God? The answer is that we must not think of heaven as a container and wrath as a substance. Heaven is first of all where God is. The trouble in the universe is a personal conflict between men and God Himself, and He responds in a personal way. Quite frankly, men do not like God nor do they want to do what He says. Therefore, God is angry with men as we would expect Him to be.
What comes out of Heaven is a reflection of His personality, namely a God who hates sin. Heaven is a source of sweetness and light for those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ but only because God is at peace with them. Heaven is a source of wrath for rebellious sinners because God is angry with men. If men do not find salvation that comes from Heaven, then they will not find it anywhere else. All they will find is wrath.
"against ... men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness"
The word "hold" in Greek is composed of the prefix kate, meaning "down," and the root echonton, which means "to have" or "possess" as in Romans 1:13 ("might have") or Romans 2:14 ("which have, having"). The word could be rendered "to hold down." The idea of the word is of active suppression. Therefore, the wrath of God is revealed because men deliberately and actively oppose the truth, seeking to inhibit it from accusing them. They do it "in unrighteousness," which could mean that their suppressions of the truth is an unrighteous action or that their life is so unrighteous that they submerge any inward thought of the truth from their conscience as well as any external appeal from God's truth.
In order to make sure that we clearly understand the discussion that follows Romans 1:18, we must understand something about the word "hold." The idea in view is not that men seek to deny the existence of God altogether, even though many people certainly do that too. Rather the picture in Romans is that men seek to suppress the truth by distorting or replacing it with their own version of the truth. Some men use philosophy while other men use religion, but all men seek to modify God's truth as well as manufacture their own "truth" so that they can explain away the wrath of God and reconcile themselves to God on their own terms.
As an example of how men "hold the truth in unrighteousness" let us examine the idea of sin. The Bible says sin is disobedience to God's law (I John 3:4). However this is not just a behavioral definition of sin, for a person who sins is driven to it by his heart. We must not accept the premise that men are "basically good." Nor should we be surprised that "nice" people sometimes do some very wicked things. Rather, the evidence is that evil follows men where ever they go because all men's hearts are desperately wicked and that sin is an expression of who they are (Jer. 17:9). The law says "Do this but don't do that." Men say "Phooey! I'll do what I want to do." Sin is what men do or do not do based upon a wicked and self centered heart that says "Leave me alone and let me live my own life as I want to. I am the captain of my own life." It is for that insolence and personal rebellion that the wrath of God will come upon men.
This explanation of sin is unacceptable to men. It is a hateful reminder of their obligation to obey God as well as their accountability for their disobedience. Therefore, men suppress the truth about sin by inventing their own definition. Let us briefly examine some of the common challenges to what the Bible calls sin.
Some people think sin is a disease or sickness. That is the label which is usually used for alcoholism. It is true that physical maladies are evidence of a sin laden world. Sin has resulted in a cursed universe which burdens men with many physical and mental illnesses. But sin is not a sickness. It is a deliberate desire of men to disobey God and feed their own lusts. It is a blessing that sin is not a sickness because there is no surgery that can be performed, no medical procedure that can be followed, no psychological treatment available, and no medicine that can be prescribed that will cure men of their sin and make them righteous. If it was a disease, men would have no hope. Therapies and pills may alleviate and control sin's symptoms in men's bodies, but they will leave them in their sin under the wrath of God.
Some people think sin is just the mistakes people make in life. If that were so, men would again be quite hopeless, for no one can start life again with a clean slate. No one can go back, erase, and correct their unrighteousness. Every sin is a permanent, indelible mark in the book which God opens on judgment day. Besides, sin is not equal to missing a few problems in a homework assignment. The issue is not that some people just were not paying attention to the instructions and so goofed when time came to do what was required. Sin is not an accidental slip, but a deliberate refusal to obey God's will.
Some people say sin is a hereditary defect. It is true that, since the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, mutations have accumulated over generations and resulted in a genetic load that is quite harmful, sometimes leaving people unable to perform the physical or mental tasks God had originally designed for men. But sin is not a problem with men's biological chemistry. It is a blessing that sin is not the same thing as having a congenital defect because genetic engineering or gene splicing will not make men right with God. In this regard, neither is sin an evolutionary relic of the past that can be eliminated by proper breeding. Men are not ascending from brutes, but descending to brutes. Men are not improving as a species. Instead there is less and less desire for doing what is right. There is more and more loathing for the constraints of God's will.
Some people think that sin is a weakness. Certainly, sin has weakened man so that he is unable to do all that he desires. However, the solution is not for men to strengthen themselves. There are no physical or mental exercises, there are no gymnastic devices or mechanical supports that will help make men pure within or right with God. In fact, men not just frail, they are spiritually dead. Sin is moral disobedience against God that has resulted in spiritual death. No men are able to do any good that will make themselves right with God.
Some people think that sin is the same as ignorance. Isn't sin just the fact that men do not know the right thing to do? If that were true, men would not have any hope, because their unrighteousness is not corrected by education. In fact, education is often used to support the evil rebellion of men. Men use what they learn about the universe in order to be more imaginative in their sin. No, sin is not equal to ignorance, for men know in their heart what God requires of them. They simply do not want to do it. Certain sinful behavior can sometimes be arrested by making people aware of the dangerous consequences of their actions. However, many times people will do what they want to do despite the harm they know it brings to themselves and others. In the final analysis men do not operate upon the basis of the facts and logic, but on the basis of their own desires.
Some people have claimed that sin is just a part of being human. The excuse is that when a man sins, he can be justified in saying, "I can't help it, that's the way I am and that's the way everybody is. You just have to expect some sin in a human's life. I am doing the best that I can and it is unreasonable and unfair to demand anything more." In one sense, it is true that "to sin is human." However, men are not sinners because they are human. That is, it is not as if they were created sinful. In other words, we cannot say that perhaps there are alien life forms in the physical universe that are perfect, so that perfection can be expected of them but not of humans. The sin of men is not a testimony to their design but to the fact that something is wrong.
It is true that nobody is perfect today, but originally, in Adam, men were created perfect. Thus the fundamental problem is not that men are human. After all, Jesus was fully human, but He never sinned. The problem is that all men are part of a fallen human race. Adam was cursed and past that curse on to all of his descendants. None of Adam' descendants is to blame for Adam's sin, but they all inherit the cursed human nature because, according to the principle of creation, kind begets kind, and all humans are like their father Adam. Also, like Adam, all men are created accountable to God so that the blame for any imperfection must be laid upon them and not upon God. Therefore, all men are trapped in the human race but not off the hook. In addition to the condemnation that must come upon them for who they are as part of the human race, they are condemned for all of their own personal sins which their fallen human nature causes them to commit.
Finally, some people think of sin is an absence of good. The idea is that men are basically good but lose their goodness by contact with a corrupt world, or that men are born innocent and are like clean slates, written upon by their evil environment. The environment certainly contributes to the corruption of men, but the source of men's' troubles are not "out there" someplace, but in themselves, in their own wicked heart. Men are not victims of a foreign, sinful invasion, but willing and eager participants in rebellion against God.
We must add that the words "the wrath of God ... against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" do not support the common misconception of sin that is many times expressed as "God hates the sin but not the sinner." Such a view implies that sin is an evil object or malevolent force independent of men, or that sin is some enemy from whose clutches poor men must be rescued. That kind of thinking is very widespread and terribly wrong. Sin exists because men exist. Other than the fallen angels, sin is committed by men. God does not sin nor do the animals sin. Men sin. Therefore, God does not punish sin. He punishes men. He does not send sin to hell. He sends men to hell.
Any attempt to separate men from the sin they commit is artificial and dangerous. It not only leads to the doctrinal perversion that God loves everyone, but it also leads to an emaciated mandate which states that Christians must not scare people into heaven by talking about hell and damnation but only show them God's love in word and in deed. The Bible states in no uncertain terms that God hates the workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5, 11:5, 26:5, 31:6, 139:21,22, Amos 3:1, Zeph. 2:5). It is the job of every believer to warn all men of the danger into which their sin places them (Ezek. 3:16-21). If salvation is anything it is a rescue, a rescue not first of all from the moral and psychological manifestation and consequences of sin, but from the hands of an angry God (Heb. 10:31) who will see to it that sinners receive the punishment they deserve (II Thess. 1:8, Heb. 12:29).
Again we ask, "Why must God's wrath come against men? Why does God's reaction against sin seem so harsh?" One thing we know for sure. As severe as the indictment and penalty is, there is no doubt that it fits the crime because God is absolutely fair. God is holy, good and pure. The rebellion of sin is an affront to His person. Sin comes out of a heart attitude that says God is not all these things and so He need not be obeyed. Therefore wrath comes against men who do not like God and are against Him.
The wrath of God is an accurate measure of how great God is and how foolish, ugly, dirty, rotten, and hateful men are. That is why men so actively suppresses the truth. The revelation of God's truth is a slap to their pride and self respect. The revelation of God's truth is a reminder of the terror they wish to forget. For unsaved sinners, it would be far better if God did not exist. The bad news is that He does and He is angry with men. They are in trouble and it is all their fault. Every little bit.
Men can be saved from this wrath, but they first must face the truth. They must be honest about who they are, what they do, and what they deserve. They must be honest about their sin. They must be honest about who God is, what He does, and what He will do to sinners. They must cry unto God for mercy because He is the One who has been offended. They must cry unto God for mercy because He alone can forgive.
Verse 19, "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them."
The word "Because" introduces an explanation. We now shall learn why God's wrath will descend upon all those people who suppress the truth. From one point of view, the explanation continues on through Romans 3:20. However, we have divided the explanation into sections which describe the different truths which men try to suppress, with verses 20 through 23 particularly highlighting the truth about God Himself.
Even though there is much about God which men do not and cannot know, He has shown men all those things "that may be known" of Himself. The following verses will explain how God has "shewed it unto them" as well as how men have suppressed "it." In other words, no one can plead ignorance about God, at least not ignorant enough so that they can say that they can be excused for not honoring Him as God. Instead, men deliberately hide or pollute the truth about God.
Verse 20, "for the invisible things of him from the creation ... are clearly seen"
This verse lists what "God hath shewed" to men, namely those things which "may be known of God." One of the things about God which are clearly seen is His "eternal power," another is His "Godhead." In short, we can say that God has revealed to men the fact that He can do all that He wants to do and the fact that He has a right to do it. Because He is the Almighty Sovereign over all the universe and its inhabitants, men have an obligation to honor and obey Him.
Verse 20 also emphasizes that the things God has shown men about Himself are "clearly seen" and that consequently men "are without excuse." In other words, God's attempt to "manifest" and to "shew," referred to in verse 19, is always successful. God's ability to reveal certain things about Himself to men is always effective. Some human teachers, because of temperament or competency, are not good teachers, and so their students do not learn the subject very well. Yet, even excellent teachers can only present the material. Something must go on in the minds and hearts of the students in order for them to learn, something which is beyond the ability of human teacher to control. On the other hand, God knows how to show things to men so that, according to verse 20, they can be "clearly seen."
The accusation in this verse is not that men, in a manner of speaking, sleep in class, do not do their homework or play hooky. The idea is not that they have been delinquent, have not grasped the material and therefore have flunked. Rather, men are condemn because they have suppressed what has been taught. That is, they understand the lessons quite well, for God is the perfect teacher. As verse 21 points out, "they knew God," that is, they knew what God has taught them about Himself. The accusation is that they do not like the facts about God and seek to censor them. That is the reason they are "without excuse."
The words "from creation" do not mean "from the beginning of time when God created the universe." Rather they mean that when we study God's creation we can go away from it with the clear lesson that God is powerful and sovereign, or as the verse puts it creation declares "his eternal power and Godhead." The verse does not debate the issue of whether the witness of the physical creation is effective. The point of verse 20 is that, whether men admit it or not, the witness is clear. The fact they do not acknowledge God is attributed to their suppression of the truth.
The list of physical evidences which are witnesses of His power and Godhead is almost endless. We shall point out only a few. They illustrate the clarity of the creation's witness.
One witness concerns the matter of origin. Without God and His power, we cannot answer the question of origins. For example, the life sciences are founded upon the law of biogenesis, which states that life can only come from life. Life never comes from non-life. Observation has shown this to be always true. We can speculate all we want, but observation tells us that we must always have life first in order to get more life, whether it is the life of a plant or an animal. Creation, therefore, faces us with the necessity of a first cause, namely a Creator from whom life comes.
Another witness, similar to the one above, is described by the first law of thermodynamics. It is called a law because it has never been observed to be violated. It states that the total amount of energy and matter in the universe always stays the same. Time and circumstances will never lead to a change in this situation. The significance of this law is that the universe cannot create itself. If it does exist, it exists because of an outside agent. Only one "agent" has the power and intelligence to create the universe out of nothing. That agent is God. Men recognize the law of biogenesis and the first law of thermodynamics, using them every day to work in and control the world. However, they choose not to think about the spiritual conclusions to which the laws lead.
Still another witness is described by the second law of thermodynamics. Again it is called a law because it has never been observed to be violated. It states that after an event happens in the universe, the total amount of useful energy in the universe which is then available to do something else has decreased. Every time something happens, the universe as a whole is less organized and less capable of allowing something else to happen. The universe can be thought of as wearing out or running down. For example if we light a match, some of the energy stored in the match before it was lit is forever lost in the sense that it can never be captured to allow us to light the match again. Anytime something happens in the universe, the universe is forever different, forever less able to provide for the needs of life which requires useful energy.
The implication of the second law of Thermodynamics is that the universe was in better shape in the past and is heading toward a process-less state of death, which corresponds to the Bible's statement that the originally perfect universe was cursed and is headed for destruction. The second law probably always was in effect in God's universe, even in the garden of Eden, with God simultaneously providing His restoring grace to keep His universe friendly to life. However, the witness of the universe is that He does not today continually restore and reverse the debilitating effects described by the law as He once did before the curse. Today He allows the universe to decay. Men acknowledge the law, although they show their lack of understanding of that law as they try to explain away its control over life processes. They observe that the universe is running down and that a complex universe cannot build itself up since it is subject to the relentless and uncompromising dissipation of useful energy as described by the second law of Thermodynamics. However, they push away the spiritual conclusions to which the observations lead.
Another particularly effective witness is the evidence of design in the creation. For one thing, the universe and everything in it is extremely complex. There is nothing that can be called "simple" in the universe. The more we investigate anything in the universe the more we are surprised and amazed by how it works. For another thing, the different complex structures in the universe are mutually dependent. For example, each part of the human eye is useless without all the other parts. Similarly, each part of the ecology contributes to a balance that is required for life to continue on earth. To this witness, we can add the beauty of the universe in the shapes, colors and fragrances of its many parts. Even though men know that a lack of planning and a lack of care in the execution of a plan results in a mess, they nonetheless suppresses the witness that the beautifully complex and interdependent world which works so well, even under a curse, reveals God's provision and care in creation.
One final witness we shall consider is the evidence of purpose and method in the physical universe which is a companion to the witness of design. The universe is not an experiment that God thought up just to see what would happen, nor is it a toy to amuse God and relieve His boredom. The creation reveals itself to be a great tool in the hand of God to meet specific objectives. In other words, certain things in the universe are created so that a much larger goal can be met. For example, in the area chemistry, the peculiar shape of the water molecule is absolutely necessary to many chemical reactions, part of God's plan to sustain physical life. In the area of history, God controlled the affairs of men so that the development of both the temporary political peace imposed by Rome and the widespread use of the Greek language around the time that the first missionaries went into the world contributed to the rapid spread of the Gospel. Underlying all of this is the fact that God has the best interests of His people in mind (Rom. 8:28).
After an honest inspection of the universe, God's eternal power and Godhead can be clearly seen. Only those who do not want to see will miss the witness and only those with a perverse heart will deny what is clear.
Verse 21, "Because that, when they knew God"
This verse reinforces the fact that the witness of creation concerning God is clear and compelling, successfully reaching its objective. Men might suppress the truth even to themselves. However, men know God to the extent He has revealed Himself to them. They know Him as the Almighty Creator whether they admit it or not.
"they glorified him not as God"
Notice that the accusation is not that men do not attempt to glorify God, but that they do not glorify Him as God. The indictment is never that men are atheists, for all men believe in a god, even if that god is themselves. The point is that men prefer a substitute for the true God. Men are known for their tendency to be religious. They offer praise somehow, somewhere to something, but invariably it is not directed toward the true God of the universe as He reveals Himself to be.
God is not a neuter "it" or a "force" of some kind. God is not some indescribable attribute which is shared by all of life or which permeates the universe. God is not an idea or a symbol for certain traits men admire or fear. God is a specific unique being. God is independent and distinct from His physical creation. Although He is a Spirit, He is real, more real than the physical creation, because God is from eternity to eternity, while the physical creation came out of nothing and will someday pass away. Because God is a person, He has a personality with particular thoughts and a unique will which are expressed in the things He says and does. For example, He is a Creator who has imagination and appreciates a job well done. He also has a personal concrete detailed interest in what He has made. He is a Judge who is sorrowful and angry because of the specific disobedience and rebellion of individual sinners. He is a Savior who wisely and tenderly fulfills His plan to rescue sinners from His wrath as well as rejoices in the righteousness displayed by those whom He has saved.
"neither were thankful"
This phrase is not a complaint that could be stated as, "They could have at least said `Thank you.'" It is true that men do not thank God, but the accusation here is that they were not thankful. That is, in their heart they did not care to thank God.
Parents instruct their children to say "Thank you" but their hope is that the training will result in their children really being thankful. A thankful attitude is proper for a person who has received a blessing from another. This is true for children who receive care from their parents, and this is true for all men who receive all that they have from God.
There are many reasons for men's thankless attitude. One is the fact that they do not value the person of God who is the Giver of all good and perfect gifts. They do not like God and would never consider thanking Him for anything. Another reason is that men do not value many of the blessings God gives, for either they would rather enjoy the sordid pleasure of their own design or they do not believe that the wholesome blessings they enjoy come from God. Gratitude toward God would mean that they are somehow obligated to Him for all that He has given them, and that debt is something they do not want to acknowledge. Besides all that, deep in their hearts they fear God. Therefore, they are not inclined to approach Him and offer Him thanks.
"but became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened"
If we stick to the logic of the passage, we must say that men's vain imaginations has something to do with the witness of creation. Men have their own ideas about how to understand "the things that are made."
The words "became vain" do not mean men are haughty or proud, although men are. The words are a translation of a word that is used only here. A related word is used in Matthew 15:9 ("in vain") and in I Corinthians 15:14 ("vain") to refer to something that does not accomplish its purpose. Men's imaginations are vain because they spin fantastic theories about the physical universe and the God who created it. And yet, all their ideas are useless in reaching their objectives. Most of men's ideas about how the universe came to be as it is today, how it functions now and what will happen to it in the future explain nothing. Their theories contradict known facts and hinder rather than help them in their daily lives. However, their vain imaginations are not just a poor intellectual alternative of an explanation of the universe. According to this verse, their vain imaginations result in darkened hearts. As the following verses will describe, when men reject the truth about God which He reveals to them and substitute their own fairy tales, they will reap the terrible consequences of that rejection.
As it turns out, it is not just that men's imaginations have gone awry, but that their imagination is always a spiritual liability because men are not capable of imagining something which must be revealed. Anything men imagine is wrong, at least when they try to imagine anything concerning God. The reason is that it is impossible for men whose experience and perception is limited to a physical world to imagine anything correctly about the spiritual realm. Additionally, men are sinful and have an inner bias against any understanding of the universe which would glorify God and hold them accountable to Him.
The words "heart was darkened" can be understood in the light of Romans 11:4,7-10 to refer to the blindness of unbelief, particularly the unwillingness to trust God coupled with a willingness to trust in another "Baal," or lord. The words are passive, a grammatical construction which points to the fact that the subject of the sentence is not the source of or the administrating agent of the action indicated by the verb. That is, the subject does not do the action but is the target of the action The idea is that men do not darken their own hearts, rather, their hearts are darkened by something or someone else. The words "heart was darkened" refer to the active hand of God in darkening them in response to their rebellion, as He prepares them for their eventual judgment.
It is easy to see how vain imaginations lead, as a natural consequence, to a darkened heart. The philosophies of men result in bad psychology, bad science, and bad societies. The goals men seek are not served because their imagined ideas are empty and without promise. In addition, men deny the truth which God declares, truth which can be a real help to them. Men grope around in their darkness without guidance or direction, all the time fearful of running into the God from whom they seek to hide.
It is not that men are trying to solve their moral and social problems intelligently, but since they make unfortunate mistakes or are clumsy in their efforts, they are not successful in what they do. Rather, it is that they would rather cling to their failed ideas and ways because their "hearts" are dark. Always the issue is a matter of the heart. It is not, first of all, the fact that men sin, but that they love to sin and hate God. What they say and do is only a reflection of their hearts. The terrible news of this verse is that men are locked in their sin, and their hearts are becoming more and more darkened. Sin always breeds more sin. A heart hateful to God always becomes more hateful.
Verse 22, "Professing ... became fools"
The word "professing" can be used in a positive way to describe an earnest proclamation of the gospel as in Acts 25:19 ("affirmed"), or in a negative way as a false allegiance to Jesus as in Revelation 2:2 ("which say"). The idea in Romans is that men seek to substitute sound for sense. Men try a loud lie in hopes that they can drown out the sound of the truth and convince others as well as themselves that they alone are wise. Loudness is not just a high decibel level, it can be a calm and professional voice which unfairly suppresses the exposure of the truth and mocks any assertion of the truth. One example of this is the foolish statements of the members of the educational and scientific community who constantly preach their humanistic and Godless view of the universe. They hope through over exposure to their dogma and through ridicule of the truth they can be thought of as wise by others as they think of themselves.
The words "become fools," from a biblical point of view, refers to people who are under the wrath of God. However, in this passage we can also look at this in the way "fool" is often used in our vernacular. That is, a man looks "dumb" when he ignores what is obvious to someone else. Since the creation "clearly" reveals God, men look like clowns when they act and speak as if He did not exist or was different than He shows Himself to be.
Verse 23, "and changed the glory of incorruptible God into an image like corruptible men"
Men cannot change the glory of God into anything, certainly not anything corrupt. This phrase must refer to the objective of men's vain imaginations. They wish to create God in their own image. Men desire to have God more like themselves so that He is less of a threat and so that they can control Him. We can think of the word "change" more like exchange, with the thought that men seek to replace the true God with one that is a product of their own imagination, which being earth bound and guided by their own egos, results in a god which can be manipulated or ignored.
On one hand we can think of the word "corruptible" as Paul's inspired comment about the nature of men, as if to say, "men seek to make God in the image of men, who is, by the way, corrupt." On the other hand we can think of "corruptible" as a comment upon the image into which men deliberately seek cast God, as if to say, "men try to make God into something corrupt, just like themselves." The first understanding is more likely because Paul is trying to emphasize the fact that men in general do not admit that they are corrupt. However, the second view reminds us of something that is also true, for men indeed try to rob God of His holiness and righteousness. One of men's objectives is to think of God as someone unworthy of thanks and worship, while at the same time championing themselves as worthy of praise and honor.
God and men do share many remarkable attributes. That is what makes men different than animals. However, the carnal passions and weaknesses which beset men are not those attributes. Nevertheless, men still try to bring God down to their level. In this way they make Him as weak and immoral as themselves, for it is sinful men's objective to find fault with the God of the Bible, even when they say that they do not believe in Him, in order to hope for an escape from accountability and condemnation. The best thing about a corruptible God, from men's point of view, is that if God is unrighteous, then He cannot judge them for their unrighteousness.
"and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things"
These words bring to mind the jungle aborigines or even the atheist who makes a god out of nature. No doubt there is a clear condemnation upon them here. However, there is another idea which we must not miss. If we compare the words "birds and fourfooted beasts" to Leviticus 11:20,27, and the words "creeping things" to Leviticus 11:41, we see that the change which sinful men seek to make is of the true religion. The condemnation is that the thing which is unclean part of the worship of the true God.
If we look at verse 22 as meaning "prospering themselves to be wise in the things of God" or "thinking themselves as saved," then we see that the indictment is against men who suppress the knowledge of God in creation inside the church. That is, there are people who make a profession of being wise, of being believers, but by their denial of the truth in their words and deeds they show that they are not.
Verses 24 through 31
In one way, the message of verses 24 through 31 is similar to the message of verses 19 through 23. Both passages accuse men of deliberately suppressing the witness to God in the world around them. Even though this world and everything in it is deteriorating because of God's curse, there is, nevertheless, enough wonder and beauty for a clear witness to the power and glory of God. The accusation of verses 24 through 31, however, differs in that the focus is upon the highest form of God's creation, men themselves. Even though men are deteriorating, like the environment of which they are a part, there is still a sufficiently clear witness within them to a mighty and wise God. God's wrath descends upon men because they reject that witness in themselves and seek to reshape that image according to their own imagination.
Verses 24,26,28, "gave them up ... gave them up ... gave them over"
All three phrases are translations of the identical word, a form of paradidomai. It is composed of a prefix that is a form of the preposition that means "along side of" and a root that is a form of the word that means "to give." The word is translated in John 18:2 and 5 as "betray" to refer to Judas' premeditated actions of delivering Jesus into the hands of the soldiers. The picture here is that God is like a jailer who is walking along side those who exchange His glory for corruptible things, making sure that they do not escape but are given over to what they deserve (Matt. 5:25).
Therefore, the words "gave up" do not imply a passive neglect as if they were a synonym for "abandon." Rather, the word is active and dynamic. The idea is that God takes a special hand in personally delivering sinners to their destruction. This is the wrath of a God who is an almighty, sovereign God. Did it happen that God destroyed the whole world, except for eight souls, in a flood? Did God consume the Israelites in the wilderness? Did children die in the streets of Jericho, of Sodom? Are the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and 29 real? Wicked men say, "God won't catch up with me." But He will. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.
On one hand, the words "gave them up" do not refer to the wrath of God because the wrath of God in the sense of punishment cannot justly be administered until men have first had their day in court. After all, a sentence cannot be announced and carried out until the trial is completed. On the other hand, the words "gave them up" do describe God's wrath, in the sense of preparation for punishment, in as much as verses 23 through 31 show what happens when God "gives them up," that is, what happens when He removes His restraint upon their evil tendencies and allows their iniquity to grow in preparation for Judgment Day. This second view is the intent of these verses. This understanding of the words "gave them up" is supported by the fact that sometimes the Bible describes the wrath of God in terms of His allowing unsaved men to have their evil desires (Psalm 78:29, 106:14,15, Acts 13:46). Incidentally, the Bible sometimes describes the opposite of wrath, which is grace, in terms of God changing the heart of His people so that they desire what He desires. That is also a longing which He always fulfills (Psalm 37:4, Jer. 29:10-14, 31:33,34).
When we think of people to whom the words "God gave them up" apply, we ought to keep in mind that we cannot and must not inspect a particular person's life and determine that he is so evil that he is obviously not a target of God's grace. Sometimes, for His purposes, God allows wickedness to multiply in the lives of His elect before He visits them with His grace. We can never tell whom God will someday arrest on the road to hell and turn around to a life of faith. The most desperate sinners have become trophies of God's grace. Paul himself could identify with that possibility. Nevertheless, the message in verses 24 through 31 is still true. In general the hardness of men's hearts and the bitter fruits which accompany their rebellious life increases as days go by. It is as if they are devoted to destruction and God prepares them for their eventual demise by allowing their hateful heart to fully reveal itself so that it is clear that God is righteous when he casts them into hell.
It is also important to recognize that the words "gave them up" have a religious dimension, for they are a quotation from Psalm 81:12 which describes the apostate church. The psalm describes a church full of people who were not thankful to God because they did not value the blessings He gave them and who did not trust God to care for them because they wanted to make their own god. In fact, the psalm says that they refused to obey God because they hated Him.
That the words "gave them up" imply God ushers members of His own church to their destruction might be a surprising idea. But it is an understandable idea for several reasons. One reason is that as members of the church profess to love God and serve Him and simultaneously pursue their own lustful desires, the disparity between their words and behavior distorts the witness of the church in the world and confuses those who seek to live faithfully. Therefore, God allows wicked church members to sow the seeds of rebellion and reap the bitter harvest in their lives so that it will be clear to others who care to notice that such wicked people do not represent the kingdom of God. Another reason is that as long as they live in the church with their words and deeds unchallenged, rebellious church members will continue to dream that their cloak of religion will protect them from God's anger. God can use the sting of their sin to either awaken them to their spiritual need or remove from them the excuse that they did not know they were doing anything wrong. Still another reason is that wicked people often seek to spread their evil ways, trying to brainwash the weak or silence anyone who attempts to speak the truth. Therefore, God sometimes marks rebellious people in the church by allowing them to endure the consequences of their rebellion in order to alert others to avoid their folly.
Verses 24,26,28,29, "to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts ... unto vile affections ... to a reprobate mind ... being filled with all unrighteousness"
These phrases highlight the moral deterioration within men that is a result of their sin. The words describe what happens to men when God gives them up in His righteous reaction to their sin. The words simultaneously describe the kind of life to which men's wicked heart aspires.
Human beings are that part of creation which most clearly shows the invisible things of God. Men were created so that their hearts and minds would imitate God. That is why, in their rejection of the witness to God in the creation, men reject the clear witness of God that is found in themselves.
Men were created with a mind so that they would think in a way that God does. It is as if, from the point of view of creation, men are children of God, and as children ought to resemble their father from whom they received life. Men were created with some of the same abilities God has. For example, men are able to design, plan and work to fulfill an objective, in imitation of God. More than that, men were also created with a heart that would be motivated to do the same things God does. For example, men were created to love righteousness, to rejoice in truth, admire holiness and be angry with injustice, just like God.
But sin ruined all that. Men do not use their minds as God originally intended them to, nor are they motivated to think, say and do the same things as God. Verses 24 through 31 describe how the image of God in men has become so marred that it can hardly be distinguished.
Verse 25, "who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator"
In the Bible, the word "lie" often refers to false worship, a deliberate attempt to move God aside and replace Him with a more convenient god or acceptable philosophy (Isa. 28:15, Jer. 10:14, 28:15). This idea is supported by the words "more than the Creator." The word "more" is para, which means "next to." The implication is that the service of unbelievers is next to the Creator, in the sense that their service is an attempt to be close to God and deceptively try to resemble service to the true God while not really being the true worship to God.
No one can change "the truth of God into a lie." However, men can misrepresent God's truth, calling themselves His child when they are not. When they do that, their evil doctrine and practice can give the world the wrong impression of what God thinks is good. Notice that the word is not "untruth" but "lie." That is, men do not just say things that are not true, they say what is not the truth on purpose. Men know the truth but deliberately suppress it and substitute their own vain imaginations.
As we see, the charge in verse 25 is directed, as are all the accusations from Romans 1:19 through 3:20, not only to men in general, but also toward the members of the churches in the world. Being a member of the church does not place a person beyond the reach of the vengeance of God. In fact, God is particularly motivated to visit His wrath upon all those who say that they worship and serve Him but do not (I Peter 4:17, Revelation chapters 2 and 3).
Verses 24,26,27, "to dishonor their own bodies between (in) themselves ... their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature ... likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of women"
Men are image bearers of God not only as individuals, but also because they are created either male or female. God designed the male and female sexes to reveal several important things about Himself. For example, there is a hierarchy in authority among men and women which reminds us of God who is the first link in the chain of command, to whom all men are accountable (I Cor. 11:3). As an other example, we can point to the fact that, in general, men and women are called to a marriage relationship which is a witness to God's gospel (Eph. 5:22-28,32).
In order to suppress the truth of God within themselves, sinners go to the extreme of denying that there exists such things as males and females, that sex is a preference rather than a clear biological distinction. This leads to many wicked perversions, one of which is highlighted in the phrases above, namely homosexuality.
According to Genesis 1:27, God never makes a mistake in creating someone as a man or a woman. He assigns a sexual distinction to each person at birth. On this side of eternity, people are the gender God makes them. People with any other idea are deliberately attempting to erase God's image within themselves and rebelliously abrogating their calling as either a man or a woman. If the sex of a person is only a matter of biology or psychology which can be manipulated to the convenience of the individual, if gender is a preference and not a result of a decision of God at conception, then they can deny that there is any program of God for their life which He designed from before their birth.
Verse 27, "receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet"
There is a liability to sexual sins. And it seems that when people transgress God's laws in the area of sex, there is a particularly heavy physical penalty. Fornication, adultery, homosexuality and other sexual sins are often accompanied by terrible diseases, relationship scars, different kinds of violence and personality distortions. These are some of the bitter fruits or "recompence" which they receive "within themselves" because of these kinds of sins. However, we must keep in mind that one group of sins is not more evil than another. Any sin breeds spiritual decay and death. The real reward of any sin is a darkened heart and a mind devoid of the ability to distinguish right from wrong which, unless changed by the grace of God, leads to wrath in hell.
The recompense people receive in their bodies is a witness to them that they cannot mock God with impunity, that there are wages to pay for sin. Additionally, it is a witness to the world that something is wrong in their lives, that the life these people are living is not according to God's will, to His design or purpose, and it is going to lead to destruction (I Cor. 6:9,10), no matter what these people may say otherwise.
Verse 28, "they did not like to retain God in their knowledge"
In the light of the context of verses 25-28, the knowledge "they did not like to retain" is the fact that they are created either male or female and are required by God to fulfill their assigned role in life. They reject the physical role that God clearly has given them because they reject His dominion over them. A proper relationship between men and women encourages worship and respect for God. They simply do not want to honor God as they ought because they are in rebellion against God and in bondage to their sins as well as to Satan.
If we expand the scope of "knowledge," then the idea of this verse is that men deliberately leave the God of the Bible out of the picture whenever they try to explain the universe and all that it contains, themselves included. The result of this omission is that their explanations become a fantasy and their justifications a rationalization, products of "a reprobate mind." But they really do not care. They are not really interested in the truth because they have a personal agenda that includes "things which are not convenient." Unsaved people prefer lust to logic and riot to reason. The reason is that they "did not like" God or His words. That is, men have an innate prejudice against God and anything He has to say.
This is not a mild idea, like "it doesn't fit their schedule." Rather, it is a strong condemnation, meaning "not convenient for God," that is, "not according to God's purpose."
Verses 29-31, "Being filled with all unrighteousness: ..."
We may think of these three verses as a list of the unrighteousness with which unbelievers are filled. We will not examine the twenty three sins individually. However, we will briefly examine one to help us understand how to relate them all to the logic at hand. Notice, for example, the phrases "disobedient to parents" and "without natural affection." According to Ephesians 6:3,4, there is a relationship between parents and children that ought to reflect the character of God and encourage respect for God. But parents in their wickedness call their children a "fetus" or a "thing" before they are born, abuse them after they are born, or if the parents do show a human love, they encourage their children to be enemies of God by their own ungodly instruction and example. Not wanting the restraint of God in their own lives, they are unwilling to discipline their own children according to the Bible. Their children in turn learn disrespect for God and His rules and are many times a grief to their parents. All the conflicts within an unsaved family can be traced to the unrighteous suppression of God's truth by the parents and by the children, or as verse 28 puts it, "they did not like to retain God in their knowledge." Therefore, all the sins listed in verses 29 through 31 are really spiritual rather than moral or social problems.
Verse 32, "knowing the judgment of God"
This phrase expresses a fact that is repeated several times in verses 18-31. The fact is that there are no real atheists. Perhaps modern men might boast that they do not believe in the myriad of gods that have been invented over the centuries. Nevertheless all men know in their heart that they are sinners and must therefore answer to a real God who will bring judgment (Titus 3:9-11). That is why men have a natural prejudice against any knowledge of God. They must suppress the clear witness that they are creatures who are accountable to their Creator. They especially do not want to retain the fact that they are in trouble with their Creator. Therefore, people work hard to convince themselves that judgment is an old fashioned notion or a joke. Nevertheless, deep down they know that the jaws of hell are yawning open for them. This is one of the big truths which they hold down in unrighteousness.
"have pleasure in them (that is, people which commit things worthy of death) that do them (that is, action worthy of death)"
In a deliberate effort to retain the sinful life they lead and at the same time put the threat of God's wrath out of their mind, men conscript others into their sinful lifestyles. They desire to obtain a consensus which is an attempt to quiet their consciences and to make their sinful lives appear legitimate others. That is why many times entertainments and amusements are used to promote an acceptance of sinful thoughts and practices among as many people as possible. After all, if sin is packaged in an attractive way, if "famous" people do it and if many people follow their lead, it easier to advertise that it could not be so bad. Not only that, by encouraging sin in others, men feel more comfortable in continuing in their own rebellion. In addition, there is a restlessness to sin. Like an infection, it seeks to spread as far and as deep as it can.