Romans 1:18-23

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The next paragraph of Romans 1 also begins with a “for”, as did v. 16, both of which have been omitted in the NIV. But the connection between thoughts suggested by the “for” at the beginning of a sentence is important. Paul has declared that the gospel is about the gift of righteousness that the holy God makes to those who believe in his Son. He is now going to unpack that statement in the paragraphs and chapters that follow. The “for” with which v. 18 begins indicates that he is now going to explain what he just said. You cannot understand what it means for human beings to be made righteous before God until first you understand that, as things stand, man is in the wrong before God, unrighteous, estranged from God, a rebel against his maker, and doomed to judgment. Why is there a gospel? Because man desperately needs righteousness he does not have. Paul is not discussing matters of a merely theoretical interest; these are questions of life and death.

He begins his explanation of the Gospel here, with human sin and divine wrath, which is to say, human guilt and God’s just punishment – the wrath of God in the Bible is always the justice of a judge – because it is the presupposition of the gospel, the reason for it all. We today speak of someone’s “righteous anger” and mean that he has every right to be angry; he ought to be angry. Indeed, indignation against injustice, corruption, and cruelty everyone admits is essential to true goodness. If one can be indifferent to evil he is not good. God is not indifferent to evil. So this righteous anger is what Paul means when speaking of God’s wrath. As we will read in v. 18 this wrath is revealed against man’s godlessness and wickedness. His point is going to be that in the light of the gospel there is no possibility of man’s being righteous before God otherwise than by faith, by God giving him a righteousness he does not have and cannot obtain by himself. [Cranfield, Romans, i, 104] How God’s wrath is revealed in the world will be the subject of the following paragraph, vv. 24 to the end of the first chapter.

Paul has in view at the outset primarily the Gentile world as will become clear as we read. Jews, of course, did not practice pagan idolatry and abominated the sexual license that was so prominent in Roman society; two matters that Paul is going to ring the changes on in the following verses. But Paul will eventually prove that the Jew is in the same predicament as the Gentile: both are unrighteous, both are in desperate need of the righteousness only God can provide. He starts with the Gentiles because most of the people in the Roman church are Gentiles and the Gentile world is the world they are most familiar with.

Text Comment

v.18     The fact that God’s wrath is being revealed means that people can see it and know it. It is not a secret. The phrase “from heaven” means that it is God’s wrath that is being revealed. It is not bad luck or misfortune that afflicts the world.  This wrath or judgment is not being revealed in the same way the Gospel is revealed – in God’s Son and Holy Scripture – but in the facts of human experience. [Bruce, 83] As one philosopher put it, “the history of the world is the judgment of the world.” [Schiller in Bruce, 83; Moo, 101] The more you read and consider the life of mankind, the more you realize this to be true. The last judgment, the final judgment of the world at the end of history is anticipated every day in this world. The world rings with the judgment of God.

“Suppress the truth” means to hold it down, to stifle it, to bury it so that it can be ignored. Because the knowledge of God is everywhere to be seen and considered, man must hold it down. He must take steps to keep this knowledge out of his mind and his consciousness. It is not easy thing to walk through this world holding your hands over your eyes so as not to see the evidence of God Almighty everywhere one looks. Not easy, but it is what man attempts to do.

v.20     In other words, though no one can see God with the eye of your body, man knows enough about him and about his nature, what God is like, that he has no excuse either for his idolatry, his worship of anything else but the living and true God, or for his behavior. He doesn’t know as much about God as a Christian does, who has learned of God’s triunity, his life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, of his mighty love, of his fatherly affection, and so on. But man knows enough about God and God’s nature not to think or behave as he does.

The term the NIV and ESV translate “divine nature” includes God’s moral attributes because it is precisely man’s suppression of that holiness that becomes the subject of Paul’s description of human life in vv. 24ff. It is in his immorality, his violence, his selfishness, and so on that man also exchanges the truth of God which he knows for the lie which he prefers. It is in these respects, as Paul says at the end of the chapter, that man knows the righteous decrees of God even as he denies them.

But, of course, it also includes his creative power as indicated in the phrase “understood from what has been made.” This verse, by the way, should make it impossible for anyone to be what is nowadays called a “theistic evolutionist,” one who believes in evolution as an explanation of the world and the life of man but also believes that God somehow, in some way, to some degree guided the process so that it can be said that he is the creator of the earth. A theistic evolutionist, as the term indicates, accepts a Darwinian, evolutionary view of the origin of life – all of life as the accumulation of a succession of random biological events – but then baptizes it and regards it as the way God happened to take in creating the world and mankind. But as an evolutionist he must deny that the world itself, that nature itself displays the power and genius of its maker. Any evolutionist, in the nature of the case, or he is not an evolutionist, denies this and argues that all that exists can be explained as the result of random mutations and natural selection. You cannot say that the world is the product of randomness, an accident, and, at the same time, that it reveals the hand of its maker as Paul so clearly says it does here.

v.21     Man’s thinking comes, as we often read in the Bible, out of his heart, that is, his inner self. A corrupted heart produces futile thinking, no matter how clever the person may be.

v.22     That a person is a “fool” in the Bible is a moral judgment, not an intellectual one. Very bright people can be dismally foolish.

v.23     There were plenty of Greco-roman writers of the period who also condemned the moral bankruptcy of the large mass of pagan society. But they were unlikely to find the cause where Paul found it, in false ideas about God. All the perversion of human life, all his failure to live at peace with others, his selfishness, his greed, and all the rest that Paul will describe in the next paragraph, it all comes from wrong ideas about God. And the contemporary moralists were still less likely to say what Paul says here: viz. that these wrong ideas about God, this false theology if you will, were by no means an innocent mistake. Man’s ignorance of God was culpable, blameworthy. It was something that man did on purpose, this suppression of the truth. The true knowledge of God was given to men and they closed their mind to it; they turned away from it on purpose. They saw the glory of God and ignored it and worshipped created things instead of the creator. Idolatry is a form of compensation. It allows man to be the worshipper his nature requires him to be while, at the same time, not worshipping the true God. And this idolatry lies at the root of man’s moral problems and so his guilt before God.

Everyone knows there is a God of great majesty, power, and holiness but people refuse to trade with that knowledge. They suppress it. They cannot eradicate it, for as Paul will later argue, it is imprinted indelibly upon their hearts; it is part of their very nature as human beings. They are themselves evidence for God. But they refuse to accept this knowledge and act in contradiction to it. They suppress the truth so that they needn’t face it. The suppression of the truth is a familiar pattern of human behavior. Paul is talking about the same kind of thing psychiatrists talk about all the time in our day. People suppress all manner of unwelcome facts. What they do not want to believe they refuse to believe; and often create rather exotic, remarkable and sophisticated explanations for why things are not as everyone knows them to be. What they do not want to believe, they do not believe. It is always hard work but man does it nevertheless. Think of suppression this way. You have a bathtub half full of water and the surface of the water is completely covered with ping pong balls. Now it is your task to keep all the balls underwater at the same time. You bend over the tub, you use your hands and arms and shoulders and torso, even your head, to try to submerge as many ping pong balls as you can, but try as you might they keep popping to the surface. Every corner is full of ping pong balls popping up out of the water, every place you cannot quite cover. In the same way man tries to hold down and keep out of sight the knowledge of God that is both inside him and in the world he surveys every day. He devotes great energy and tremendous ingenuity to this effort, but he never fully succeeds. The knowledge of God he has been given continually leaks or pops up into his life. Man’s life is the story of his effort to suppress the truth about God and how he can do this with only partial success.

He cannot, for example, eradicate his moral sense. This moral sense is one of the oddest characteristics of human life. It is found in every human being, it is found in every society. It is of immense importance to human beings. Man judges the behavior of others and of himself according to absolute standards of right and wrong that can only come from the infinite personal God who made him and who will judge his life but then thinks little or not at all about the judgment of the God whose standards are imprinted so indelibly upon his life. No matter his enthusiasm for the moral judgment of others, he constantly justifies behavior in himself and in others that he knows very well is wrong. He worships idols of one kind or another; he cannot help being a worshipper. But his idols are unworthy of his worship because they are not the God of glory who made him and the world. He devotes himself to what he and others know are false gods. He tells himself how foolish it is to worship money. He loves to read “Silas Marner” and see “The Christmas Carol” at Christmas time, but he makes money his god nevertheless.

That is what Paul is saying in these opening verses of his argument in a general way and which he will illustrate in greater detail as he proceeds. Why? Why is man like this? Why does he suppress the truth that has been revealed to him? Why does he ignore it? And why does he spend so much energy ignoring it?  Paul will explain this to some degree in chapter 5 when he gives an account of the fall of man into sin at the beginning of the world. But there is much that remains a great and impenetrable mystery. There is something very strange in the existence and the behavior of man and something very sad! The intellectual powers of human beings being what they are, his terrible foolishness is a tremendous mystery. His moral sense being what it is, his love of evil and pursuit of evil is a great mystery. But these are the facts of life in a fallen world. Such is the intractable rebellion of man against the great Majesty who gave him life. Men and women who know God will not acknowledge him or submit to him; men and women who know the glory of God will not worship him and will worship anything instead of him. And all the woe in the world comes from this: wrong views of God that man insists on maintaining in defiance of the evidence.

This is the true mystery of life: mankind’s invincible and determined ignorance of God when the knowledge of God has been revealed to men and women so powerfully and beautifully and constantly both within himself and in the world around him. The explanation of man begins here, must begin here: with his determination to have nothing to do with the living God, to deny him his rightful place even when his existence, his majesty, his power, his genius, his goodness and his justice are stamped all over man’s life.

The life of modern man, of man in our day is just the same as it was in Paul’s day. The same terrible mystery of human life confronts us as well. In a day when God’s power and divine nature, his genius, his brilliance, have been seen as perhaps never before – the astronomers have seen it, the biochemists as well – Western man at least, has so succeeded in suppressing the truth about God that he has managed to marginalize God to a position of utter irrelevance in modern life. God is not spoken of in the halls of power. His will is not considered in the rule of nations. The media prattle on about anything and everything twenty-four hours a day and never even drop a hint that man has a Maker or that this world is subject to God’s judgment. The worship of God is everywhere ignored. The fundamental fact of human existence, Paul says, is that man has a maker, that he owes his life and his powers to the God who gave them to him, and that everywhere man looks – both within and without – the evidence of that God and that creation and of himself as God’s creature may be found. Deny this and you deny the most important fact about a human being. And yet this is what modern man has done, wittingly or unwittingly, passively or actively.

This is the great significance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. We are celebrating Calvin’s 500th birthday this year. Many others are celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday this year. Darwinism and especially Darwinism in its modern form, is perhaps the most elaborate, the most intellectually sophisticated and the most sustained effort in the history of human life and thought to suppress the truth about God. And its advocates and adherents do this with a vengeance, a strange and mysterious vengeance that often baffles Christians who are observing this. And the proof of it is that they will not consider, they adamantly refuse to consider even the bare possibility that evolution, as a theory of the origin of life, might be wrong. Sometimes we stand amazed. We are struck by how odd this is. Why the fierce loyalty to a theory that is frankly in a variety of respects very difficult to believe? I’ve often thought about this and many, of course, have pointed it out in recent years. There is something unusually adamant, we might even say desperate, about the loyalty of so many to the theory of evolution.

The defining characteristic of the modern evolutionist is his certainty. If the fossil record provides no evidence of that universe of intermediate forms, the missing links, that the theory requires, no problem. Either evolution proceeded by great leaps – a preposterous thought – or we just haven’t found the right fossils (after a century and a half of looking, an almost equally preposterous thought). Darwin thought and actually said that if the missing links, the intermediate forms were not found in the fossil record his theory would have been disproved. They have not been found but it still doesn’t trouble the true Darwinist believer. Do these biologists and paleontologists find themselves unable to sleep, wondering why the historical  record of life does not agree with their theory? They do not.

And when the absolutely breathtaking advances in biochemistry reveal the phenomenal complexity of even the simplest building blocks of life, do they express second thoughts? They do not. They just redouble their efforts to keep the ping pong balls underwater. If you think of a cell as a factory, protein molecules are the machines on the factory floor that carry out the various processes necessary for the life and work of the cell and there are a very, very large number of very sophisticated processes that must be carried out; from manufacture to information storage to the replication of the entire factory in a moment of time.  Each protein is a micro-miniaturized machine that would have to be magnified a million times for it to be visible to the human eye. Most proteins consist of some several thousand atoms folded into an immensely complex spatial arrangement. Proteins that perform different functions in the cell have different structures but they are all fantastically complex in structure and function. Does the necessary assumption that all of this fantastic complexity and all of this perfection of design came to pass accidentally trouble the Darwinist? It does not.

And when the statisticians report that the probability of even one of those simple building blocks of life, a single protein, being formed randomly can now be calculated and is vanishingly small, effectively zero, do these scientists gather around the water cooler and admit to one another that perhaps they bet on the wrong horse and that the theory of evolution has now to be given up as a bad job. They do not. Nothing shakes their confidence. Nothing deters them from asserting it as proven fact. They will not give in because the alternative – the acknowledgement of the infinite personal God as the creator of heaven and earth – is strictly forbidden. It comes with implications that are genuinely horrific to them. The truth that nature reveals about God is something to suppress, not something to face. Why?

Because with God comes the reality of sin and guilt and punishment. With God come God’s law and the necessity of obedience. Sinful rebels do not, will not accept this outcome. It is hardly only Thomas Huxley and Margaret Mead that have admitted that believing in evolution and denying God actually brings some real comfort to the human soul. It is the sub-text of many recent books and articles. The idols of the ancient world performed this same function. They cared nothing about ethics. They made no demands on your way of life. You had to offer your sacrifices but you could live as you pleased. That is why idolatry was so popular: idols are precisely not like the living and holy God. And the idols of the modern world are little different. Naturalism, the idea that the world, that nature is all there is, that it created itself, delivers one from any accountability to a God who condemns sin. It was this phenomenon that Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel winner, was commenting on when he wrote in one of his works [Roadside Dogs]:

“Religion, opium of the people. [So said Karl Marx.] To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in the afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” [Cited by R.J. Neuhaus, First Things (Nov. 2008) 70.

Evolution, in other words, is an addiction, like heroin. The addict cannot give it up. It is his only peace. In naturalism one’s accountability, such as it may be, is only to nature and to the laws of nature. Whereas there are rewards and punishments with God, there are only consequences with nature and only limited ones at that. Naturalism frees man from his sin and from the guilt of sin by extinguishing the very existence of sin. For sin requires a person whose standards have been violated; someone with the right to impose those standards, and someone with the power to enforce them and to judge your conformity to them. You cannot sin against nature. Nature does not know whether you have done right or wrong and it does not care.

In other words, there is something deeply spiritual at work in man’s view of the world and of himself. There is a deep reason that the evolutionist is not worried when the fossils don’t support him, or the gay rights activist is not troubled by the causes, the nature, and the consequences of homosexuality, or the naturalist does not despair to believe that life, being an accident, means nothing, and that death is the end of all human hopes and longings. These convictions are coming up from deep within him or her and are the inevitable expression of his or her rebellion against God and, consequently, his or her suppression of the truth. To give up these convictions would be, in effect, to submit to God, to his existence, to his rule, to his judgment, and to his salvation. This man will not do; this man has never done apart from the grace of God in Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit. There is a reason why George Bernard Shaw described the reception of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859 by saying, “the world leapt at Darwin.” Darwin provided them a theory by which to justify their fondest wish: that they could eliminate the living God from their world. They are not about to give up that project because of some problems with the evidence, however severe those problems may prove.

Augustine admitted that when he was a young man Manichaean thinking was very attractive to him for just this reason. The Manichees held that the human predicament was the result of an eternal dualism between good and evil and that, in the time of human life good had somehow been trapped within matter, matter being evil. As a result human beings experienced a division within themselves, a conflict between parts of themselves. The human soul was literally a particle of deity imprisoned in a dark and evil body. The result was that, according to the Manichees, we humans: our souls, our real selves, are not the ones who do evil. Rather we are good. It is the evil matter, the stuff of our bodies that our true selves have been imprisoned in that bears the guilt for the wrong which we do and have done. It is an idea not very different from the popular modern idea that mankind is basically good but is, through no fault of his own, corrupted by his environment. Our moral failure is not our fault.

It was, Augustine tells us, a very attractive way of thinking about oneself and about the unworthy thoughts and unkind words and evil deeds that we do and all the good we fail to do. “I still thought,” he wrote, “that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it…I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me.” [Confessions, V, x]

But it was, Augustine finally admitted, a lie. He was lying to himself about himself. He was suppressing the truth. He was the sinner, not some alien force within him. He was responsible for his unworthy behavior. And his effort to deflect responsibility and accountability was nothing more nor less than a refusal to face facts. He was, as Paul would have put it, suppressing the truth about God and, as a result, thinking all manner of foolish things about himself. The true knowledge of oneself and of the world begins with the true knowledge of God who made the world, who made us, and who will someday judge the world. This is what is so devilish about evolution in our day and Manichaeanism in Augustine’s day. It satisfies the human mind and heart that one can think about most everything in one’s life without first thinking about the holy God who made you and made you what you are.

The facts are as they have always been. There is, in fact, a revelation of God within every human being and in the world around us. It is a revelation so clear and so unmistakable that it requires great effort on man’s part to hold that truth at bay, to keep it away from the mind’s eye, to shut one’s heart to it. Every human being gives in to this truth every day: every acknowledgement of right and wrong, good and evil, purpose and meaning, the sanctity of human life – all of this is from God, all impossible without God, all profoundly part of man’s life – no matter that he will not submit to this truth or acknowledge the one from whom it comes.

Consider then what it means that God has revealed himself, has made himself known to mankind. He made us and he has given to us the evidence of himself everywhere we look. He hemmed us in with this evidence. It is within us, without us, below us and above us. Even his wrath is being revealed in the world – more on this next Lord’s Day morning – meaning that he has told us about that part of himself as well. He does not want us to be in the dark. He does not want us to be ignorant of the truth about him or about ourselves. He wants us to know him. He wants us to know where we came from, to whom we owe our lives, and for whom we ought to live them. He wants us to know the true meaning of things. He has been careful to show us what must be our fate if we do not submit to him. He has left his fingerprints all over his creation for us to see. It is his kindness, mercy and goodness that he has done so. All that is most precious to us, all that means the most to us, all that makes our lives important to us and worth living, reveal the life and the heart of the living God. It is our perversity and foolishness that we have not thanked him for this and acknowledged the truth about him and about ourselves. No wonder Paul should say that man is without excuse.

But here is the first point of Paul’s argument concerning the gospel, the good news. Man must acknowledge the living God as his creator, as one who is there and who accounts for the world; he must acknowledge God as his judge, as the one to whom he must give an account; he must acknowledge these things about God if he is ever to know God as his Savior, as his heavenly Father or as his friend. That is the first reason why Paul starts to explain the good news by talking about how man suppresses the truth he knows about God and about himself as God’s creature. Wrong ideas about God will forever keep a man from God’s love, from God’s salvation and from that righteousness that he so desperately needs. They will keep a person deaf to the gospel, the good news, no matter how loudly it is shouted to him or to her. And that must be far and away the greatest conceivable tragedy of human life.