Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (Romans 1:19-23).
In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome in order to present his most profound case for the gospel. This is his magnum opus, his most extraordinary treatise for what the gospel is. In this theological argument, Paul begins his case with every person’s need for the gospel, which is, namely, the fact of the wrath of God upon every member of the sinful human race who is without Jesus Christ. The apostle starts here, because the good news of the gospel is never good news until you first know the bad news.
Paul commences his presentation of the gospel with the wrath of God, because the entire human race apart from Christ is under His fierce anger. Therefore, the whole world desperately needs the saving message of Jesus Christ. Everyone of us needs the gospel. Further, everyone that you and I will meet today as we go to our places of business, everyone with whom we rub shoulders during the day, is in dire need of this gospel. Apart from this truth, sinners are under the wrath of Almighty God.
What is the wrath of God? The word wrath (orge) refers to His settled, determined indignation against sinful mankind. It is His holy vengeance that reacts in judgment against all that is unholy. It is His righteous indignation and fierce anger against all that does not conform to His perfect character. In the book of Romans, Paul pulls no punches, but repeatedly addresses this aspect of God’s perfect holiness (1:18; 2:5,8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19).
This is where Paul begins his argument for the gospel, when he wrote, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (verse 18). This is the divine wrath that is presently being revealed against all unrighteousness, wherever it is on the earth. Apart from the gospel, all mankind is under divine judgment and condemnation.
This declaration of sinful mankind’s condemnation is very graphic and grim. Paul certainly does not tell us what we want to hear. Instead, he tells us what we need to hear. The apostle does not sugar coat the truth, but tells it like it is in straightforward fashion. There is no fine print in what he writes. This truth is made known in large print. I would remind us, this teaching on divine wrath is placed at the very beginning of the book of Romans. Paul does not hold back this bad news until the end of his letter because it is so unpalatable. Rather, he front-loads this subject at the very outset of Romans. This assertion of divine anger against sin is direct, emphatic, and even abrupt. The apostle makes no apologies for God’s holy wrath. There is no attempt to tone down this sober reality that threatens all who are without the gospel. This is the unvarnished truth from God, flowing through the pen of the apostle Paul.
Whether a person has heard the name of Christ or not, he is guilty before God. Such a person is under eternal condemnation just like the person who has heard the gospel and rejected it. The human race has been weighed in the divine balances of inflexible justice and are all found wanting. There is no excuse that any sinner can offer God to escape his condemnation in the final judgment. On the last day, Paul says that every mouth will be closed before God (Romans 3:19). No guilty sinner can open his mouth to render a counter-argument against God.
As we come to the verses for this study, Paul teaches that God has made Himself known to every man (verses 19-20). However, every person has rejected this knowledge of God (verses 21-22) and replaced it with idolatrous thoughts of another god of their own making (1:23).
I. The Revelation of God (1:19)
Paul writes, "because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them" (verse 19). Here, Paul is describing God’s revelation of Himself to all people. This is what theologians call general revelation. To be clear, there are two different kinds of revelation by which God has made Himself known to mankind. These two categories are general revelation and special revelation. We have to keep those two categories distinct. Let us consider each.
The first category is general revelation, which is the self-disclosure of God in a general, non-saving way. It is called general because this knowledge about God is made known to the entire human race. There is no one on planet earth, on any continent, on any island, who has not received general revelation about God. General revelation reveals the existence of God and makes known His attributes. But it does not reveal the way to know God. This knowledge of God is sufficient to condemn, but it is not sufficient to save.
As Paul writes in verse 19, he is referring to general revelation. He is addressing what is generally revealed by God, about Himself, to all men. When Paul writes in verse 19, "that which is known about God," he is referring to the truth about His existence and attributes. When he explains that this knowledge "is evident," he means that this truth about God is clearly seen. It is obvious to all people. This divine self-disclosure is out in the open. The fact of God’s existence is not hidden from the human race. No matter where a person is on planet earth, the reality of the person of the person of God is glaringly obvious to all.
At the end of verse 19, Paul further explains, "for God made it evident to them." This is an important statement, because no man has ever found God on his own. God must take the initiative to reveal Himself to man. God must make the truth about Himself evident. If God is to be known, He must act first and disclose Himself to the human race.
The second category is special revelation, which is what we have in His written word (verses 2,17). This revelation is often referred to as saving revelation because it is absolutely necessary for someone to exercise faith in Jesus Christ. Special revelation is a fuller disclosure by which God reveals to mankind the way to know Him. This saving revelation is found exclusively in the written word, which alone tells us about the living Word, Lord Jesus Christ. What we know of the person of Christ and the plan of salvation is found in the written word of God.
Paul will tell us later in Romans 10:17, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." No one can be saved without hearing the gospel, which is found in special revelation. That is why we preach the gospel to the world. That is why we must send missionaries. That is why we must go to the ends of the earth to testify of the Lord Jesus Christ to people who have never heard of Him. No one can be saved merely by general revelation. They can only come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ by the special revelation found in the Bible.
No matter where a person is in the world, God is speaking to them. It is the very nature of God to be revealing Himself to mankind. Francis Schaeffer wrote a book many years ago entitled God is There and He is Not Silent. Schaeffer argues this very point, that God is a speaking God, who is always revealing Himself throughout the whole earth.
II. The Reality of God (1:20)
Paul enlarges what he has said when he writes, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen" (verse 20). This says that God has revealed Himself to man from the beginning of the world. This divine self-disclosure started long before the New Testament times in which Paul writes. This revelation of God started before the call of Abraham and the birth of the nation of Israel. This manifestation of God started before the Tower of Babel or the flood in the days of Noah. This general revelation of God began at the creation of the world.
God is Omnipotent
The apostle explains that creation itself reveals "His invisible attributes." This refers to the divine attributes that belong to the person of God. Paul specifies one of these attributes when he next mentions, "His eternal power." Anyone can look at creation and logically surmise that it was made by and is controlled by a Creator who possesses power beyond human comprehension. A person would have to be blind to the clear reality before him in order to deny the power of this Creator. Such a person would have to create an illogical explanation for the origin of the universe. Creation implies and even demands the reality of a Creator.
Anyone should be able to look at creation and conclude how powerful must be its Creator. A person should be able to conclude that its Maker must be very powerful to have filled the vast oceans with water, heaped up the towering mountains, laid the foundation for the continental masses, and hung the sun, the moon, and the planets in outer space. This Creator must be awesome in His power, far beyond man’s greatest imagination. His might far exceeds any power that any human can conceive.
God is Eternal
The general revelation about God’s being also communicates His “eternal power.” The Creator must have existed before His creation. There had to have been an initial first cause from which – or more correctly, from Whom – everything else is the subsequent effect. The only reasonable explanation that there can be is that God Himself is this sole first cause for all that exists in the universe. If there was ever a time when there was no God, then there could not be anything. The fact that there is creation demands, logically, philosophically, and biblically the only rational conclusion that there was a first cause that brought into being everything ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing. An all-powerful, eternal God is the only adequate explanation for the existence of the universe. No explosion of gases or chemical reactions could have created everything out of nothing. What would be the origin of those elements? There had to be an outside force who created everything, and that is God.
God is All-Wise
Any look at creation also reveals that God is stunningly brilliant in His design of the universe. He is able to create with perfect wisdom that reveals His own perfections. Consider how the earth is precisely tilted on its axis at the exact angle it is, spinning at the correct rate of speed in 24-hour rotations. Think of the pinpoint accuracy in the distance of the earth from the sun. If the earth were any closer to the sun, it would burn up. If this planet was any further away, it would freeze. As the earth spins, it is perfectly exposed to the sun so that there can be the growth of plant life. This is a revelation of the perfect wisdom of God.
Consider the many rivers of the earth flow into the vast oceans, the evaporation of water in the forming of clouds, and the moving of those clouds by the wind over the landmass. Consider the rain that ensues, the dropping of the water back onto the landmass, the way that it runs off into streams, how the streams flow into the rivers, and the rivers back into the ocean. This is nothing less than the brilliant design of God. As anyone looks at creation, he should see the sheer genius of the Creator on display.
My father was a professor in medical school for several decades. He told me that he would be a Christian if the only proof of God in creation he had was the human eye. He explained to me that the detailed craftsmanship of the human eye is beyond any explanation apart from there being a Master Designer who created it. And that is just one small part of our human body that testifies to the existence of God.
“Understood Through What Has Been Made”
Moreover, we see the faithfulness of God in creation through the rotation of the seasons of the year, year after year. We see His unfailing faithfulness through the coming of the harvest every year. We see His consistent reliability through God providing food for the human race day after day, as we live upon the earth. We see the wrath and anger of God as we look at the hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis. We see the peace of God in the calm after the storm. God has made His “divine nature” known to every single person through what He has made. To believe that all that exists merely happened by sheer chance or random fate, or that everything has created itself, is absolute non-sense.
Paul adds that God’s self-existence and divine nature are “clearly seen" in creation. That is to say, His being is not merely dimly revealed in what He has made. Neither are His attributes only faintly observed in creation. Instead, it is plainly witnessed to mankind, as clear as in broad daylight. Paul contends that the truth of God’s existence and character is "understood through what has been made." This general revelation of the person of God, Paul says, is made known so that every person is "without excuse." There is no person who will be able to stand before God on the last day and say that He did not reveal that He exists. By general revelation, the entire world is rendered accountable to God.
IiI. The Rejection of God (1:21-22)
But despite this clear revelation of God, men, by and large, have rejected it. The world is not gladly receiving this truth concerning the existence and character of God. Rather than desiring more knowledge about God, the very opposite is occurring. Though God has made Himself known to all people, they have chosen to turn away from this truth and reject it. This refusal underscores what Paul will write later regarding the total depravity of the human heart: “There is none who understands, none who seeks for God” (Romans 3:11). Because of their inherent sinful corruption, they turn away from God rather than seek Him.
Paul further explains, "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks" (verse 21). This does not mean they “knew” God in a saving relationship. Rather, it simply means that they knew about God. What they knew about God is the general revelation of Himself that is mentioned in verse 19. Paul states that even when they knew about God, “they did not honor Him as God.” That is, they did not give Him the glory He rightly deserves. They did not bow down before Him and call upon Him. They did not humble themselves beneath this God and pursue to know Him.
Paul adds, neither did they “give thanks.” That is, they did not acknowledge God as the source of all good in their lives. They did not express gratitude to Him for all that He had provided for them. They did not give thanks for the food they eat, nor for the rain they receive. They did not give thanks for the breath they take. They took for granted these many provisions that God gave them. And they certainly did not give thanks for the self-revelation that God had given them.
“Futile in their Speculations”
When a person rejects the truth about God, it puts him in a very dangerous place. We see the result of their rejection of God as Paul continues, “They became futile in their speculations” (verse 21). That they became “futile” (mataioo) means their thinking became ‘useless, worthless, vain, foolish.’ They conjured up in their darkened minds empty speculations about who God is. They began to have vain imaginations about God that have no basis in reality whatsoever. They began to create with their hands images of what they perceived God to be like. In doing so, these God-rejectors became idolaters, who create self-conceived gods of their own insane imagination. This idol-crafting is the direct result of rejecting the truth about God when it was made known to them.
Paul says, they became futile “in their speculations.” He uses the word “speculations” (dialogismos) in a degrading manner. Paul rightly accuses them of inventing base concepts about God that are inane and nonsensical. They become plagued with empty thoughts about what they think God is like that are utterly false and, worse, blasphemous.
Paul emphatically asserts that, "their foolish heart became darkened.” This word “foolish” (moros) comes from the Greek word from which we derive the English word ‘moron.’ He is saying that these God-rejectors became moronic, incapable of having rational thoughts about God. Rejecting the light always increases the darkness. The sin of rejecting the truth about God inevitably results in a devastating effect upon anyone’s thinking processes. Rejecting divine truth always short-circuits man’s rational abilities. Paul says, their foolish heart was “darkened." Rejecting the light, their hearts became darkened. God blew out the candle and left them to grope in the dark about who He is and what He is like.
“Professing to be Wise”
Paul succinctly states, "Professing to be wise, they became fools" (verse 22). This arrogant claim to be wise documents how self-deceived fallen mankind is. They declare themselves to be wise, beating their own chest, and elevating themselves in their own sin-blinded eyes. They proclaim the brilliance of their own intellect, thinking they are wiser than the One who made them. The result, Paul states, “they became fools.” Instead of being wise, the outcome was the total opposite. They became absolute fools who are incapable of any sound thinking about God and the ultimate issues in life such as: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is life about? What is my purpose? How am I to live? What is death? What awaits me after death?
Here is the tragic plight of the human race. As we observe the world around us, who among us is not seeing our society unraveling before our eyes? What we are seeing before us is the reality of these very verses Agnosticism and atheism are on the rise, as we are seeing those verses lived out on a daily basis before us.
IV. The Replacement of God (1:23)
The end result of this rejection of God is found in the next verse. Please note this downward spiral that descends into greater darkness from the revelation of God (verses 19-20), to the rejection of this truth about God (verse 21), to the insanity that results (verses 21b-22), to the replacement of God with idolatry (verse 23). Idolatry is not man climbing upward with higher thoughts about God. Idolatry is the total opposite. It is man spiraling down into a lower state of debased thinking and depraved living (verses 24-32).
The Terrible Exchange
The inevitable consequence of rejecting the truth about God is devastating. Paul writes that they "exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures" (verse 23). This replacement of the glory of God for the grossness of the creature is a destructive exchange. This trade is giving up treasures of truth diamonds for the trash of lies. This is buying high and selling low of the worst sort. They exchanged the inestimable value of divine truth for what is worthless.
That God is “incorruptible” (aphthartos) means that He is never decaying, never dying. These God-rejectors substitute the “glory” (doxa) of this incorruptible God – which means the outshining radiance of this knowledge of God – “for an image in the form of corruptible man.” They trade the knowledge of the ever-living God for pieces of wood and metal that are crafted into the image of a man. They then bowed down before these man-crafted images and worshiped what their own hands produced. How insane can insane be? How base can a mind be? How low can the human mind sink? Yet, this is what idolaters do.
These God-rejectors then devolve even lower into the gutter. They worship images of “birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” This is exactly the foul dregs into which the Egyptian dynasty had sunk. This is exactly the spiritual darkness in which the Babylonian kingdom had been submerged. This is exactly where the Assyrian kingdom had fallen. This is where Abraham was in Ur of the Chaldees, as a moon-worshipper, when God called him. Rather than worshipping the Creator, Abraham was worshipping the creation that God had made. How blind can blind be? How foolish can foolish be?
The Downward Spiral
In the verses that follow, we will discover that this downward death spiral does not end with idolatry. There are yet even lower steps leading further down the slippery slope into grosser debauchery that go from worse to worse. In verse 24, Paul will announce that God will give these idolaters over into judgment. When God gives them over, there are three lower rungs on the ladder as man is still moving further and further and further away from Him. No one is actually seeking God. The very opposite is true. According to the doctrine of total depravity, men are running away from the knowledge of God in their ignorance. Their fingers are in their ears, lest they hear the truth about God. They cover their eyes, lest they see something.
We read, "God gave them over in the lusts of their heart to impurity" (verse 24). Then, "God gave them over to degrading passions" (verse 26). Finally, "God gave them over to a reprobate mind" (verse 28). This downward descent of mankind ends with as low morality as can be (verse 32). People are involved in the grossest of sins, the world is actually giving approval to these debaucheries. The approval ratings go up the more wicked and vile and depraved it becomes. There is no shame. This is a sobering picture of the downward decline of the human race.
The human race has started at the high point of receiving the knowledge of God, but then adamantly rejected it. They then exchanged the knowledge of God for their own hand-made idols. Consequently, God has given this segment of the human race over to its own degrading passions. This slippery slope starts with monotheism, the recognition that there is only one God. But it devolves into man creating his own gods. This leads into polytheism, the creation of other gods according to man's own vain imaginations.
What we have predicted here is the often repeated history of the human race. We have the history of culture, society, and nations. It starts with the knowledge of God, followed by the rejection of this truth. This, in turn, sends man into a free-fall in which he is going further away from God. There will come a point where God will abandon such societies, giving them a push in the direction they have chosen to go. At that point, they rarely find their way back to God, apart from divine intervention.
How Shall We Then Live?
What are the implications of the truth we have examined in these verses? What does this passage say about our responsibility to God? What do these verses require of us? What positive application can there be from such negative statements?
Give Glory to God
First, we must be careful to do the very opposite of what we see described in these verses. Paul relates, “they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (verse 21). We must pursue the antithesis of what is depicted here. We must be those who give glory to God. We must be worshipers of God. We must bow down before this one true God and come to Him through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the only way we can find access to come before His throne of grace.
You and I have been created to worship God. We are not to worship the creation, but the Creator. As you and I live, we must be those who give glory to God as an ongoing lifestyle. We must do this not just on Sunday mornings from 11 to 12, but every moment of every day. We must be giving glory to God on Monday morning, Tuesday afternoon, and Friday night, throughout the entire week.
The Westminster Catechism begins by asking that most important question: What is the chief end of man? The answer is: To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. This is our response. We must live contrary to what we see in Romans1:21-23. We must be those who give glory to God and worship Him.
Give Thanks to God
Second, we must be giving thanks to God in everything. If unbelievers withhold the giving of thanks to God, we must be those who give Him thanks for what He has down for us and what He is to us. Worshipers cannot be complainers. We cannot be whiners or grumblers. We must be those who are continually giving thanks to our God. Even on our deathbed, we should have an anthem of thanksgiving arising from our lips. We must give thanks to God for small things, for big things, for His provision for us, for His protection, for His care, for His providence in our lives, for His Son, for grace, for salvation. Let us rise up and give Him thanks.
The largest part of our gratitude arises from the fact that God has had mercy upon our once spiritually dead soul. We have been plucked as a brand out of the fire. That God would have set us apart, out of this corrupt world, is cause for great thanks to be given to God. The mere fact that you know God should cause a stream of thanksgiving to flow from your lips. Left to myself, these verses about rejecting the truth about God would be my spiritual biography. Apart from God’s grace, this would be the story of my life.
How humbling it is, that you and I know the Lord. Every one of us should say, "Why me, Lord? Why have I been singled out? Why did you even have me born in America? In a place where the gospel is preached. Why was I not born in North Korea? Why was I not born in China? Why was I not born in Siberia? Why was I not born in the Sudan? Why was I not born someplace where even the name of Christ is not known? Why was I born at the intersection of so many churches? With all these different churches and gospel witnesses flowing like Niagara Falls into my life?" Every one of us should be humbled at how merciful God has been to us that we are not sucked down into lower levels of depravity and ungodliness and unrighteousness.
Bear Witness to God
Third, we must be actively involved in telling others about the truth of God. We must be bearing witness of the gospel to those who are in need of the saving knowledge of God. This also involves supporting the work of missions through ministries who are taking the gospel to other lands. This involves being willing to go on sort term missions. It involves encouraging those who are actively engaged in doing what they can to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. This requires us to do all that we can to be involved in reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.