REJECTING WHAT WE NATURALLY KNOW ABOUT GOD LEAVES US WITHOUT EXCUSE AND ALWAYS BRINGS GOD’S WRATH
Douglas Moo: Verse 18 comes to the reader as quite a surprise. Paul has just announced his theme for the letter: the gospel as God’s saving power, revealing his righteousness to all who believe. But instead of the exposition of these wonderful truths, we get dire news about God’s wrath against sin. Indeed, it is not until fully two chapters later, in 3:21, that Paul finally picks up on the themes he broached in 1:16–17. Why is this? Apparently Paul thinks it necessary to make clear just why the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel is necessary. Only by fully understanding the “bad news” can we appreciate the “good news.” Thus, Paul goes to some lengths to detail for us the nature and dimension of the human predicament (1:18–3:20).
James Dunn: (1:18 – 3:20) The Wrath of God on Man’s Unrighteousness –
1:18, with its double use of ἀδικία as a summary of human failure, serves as a heading for the whole section, to which the repetition of the word in 1:29, 2:8, and 3:5 recalls the reader. The indictment focuses first on man as such, but in effect on the Gentile “them” over against the Jewish “us” (1:18–32), then on “the Jew” himself (2:1—3:8), before summing up in 3:9–20. That is to say, the principal focus of critique is Jewish self-assurance that the typically Jewish indictment of Gentile sin (1:18–32) is not applicable to the covenant people themselves (2:1—3:20; cf. Synofzik, 87–88).
Frank Thielman: When God punishes human rebellion against himself, he acts as a righteous judge both in deciding to punish human beings and in the way he executes the punishment. They cannot plead ignorance in their defense, since he holds them responsible for acting in accord with the truth about himself that he has clearly shown to them in creation. They also cannot plead that his punishment is too harsh, because he has handed them over to the consequences of their own choice to rebel against the truth he has revealed.
John Toews: Paul is not making the case for a natural theology, that men and women can reason their way to God from nature (the argument from below to above), but asserts that humanity has no excuse because it has continuous access to knowledge of God.
The sin of humanity is that men and women did not glorify God or give thanks. Humanity knew God, but did not recognize or honor God. The fundamental human perversion is rejection of God.
Grant Osborne: Paul’s description of the case against humanity can be outlined in three steps:
(1) Man demonstrated an aversion to faith in God alone.
(2) This was followed almost immediately by a diversion from God’s way of thinking.
(3) This led to perversions in relations with God (idolatry) and in relations among people (immorality).
The evidence against humanity requires the verdict of guilty as charged.
Steven Cole: To say that the concept of God’s wrath is out of sync with our modern world is to state the obvious. Even many who claim to be evangelicals object to and minimize any mention of God’s wrath. They may say that they believe it because it’s in the Bible, but they’re embarrassed by it. I’ve even heard of professing Christians who say, “I believe in a God of love, not a God of wrath.” Sometimes such people ignorantly imply that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath, but by the New Testament, He mellowed out to be a nice old guy! I’ve been told that Jesus was always loving and never judgmental. I always want to ask such people, “When was the last time you actually read the New Testament?” . . .
God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself and have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.
I. (:18) SUPPRESSION OF TRUTH — GOD ALWAYS RESPONDS IN WRATH AGAINST THOSE WHO REJECT HIS REVEALED TRUTH
A. Divine Wrath is Real and Revealed
- Divine Wrath is Real
“For the wrath of God”
God by nature is a God of wrath – you doubt this at your own peril;
Divine wrath is emphasized in the Bible – look at word usage of “wrath,” “anger”, “fury” – over 400 times
Steven Cole: J. I. Packer (Knowing God [IVP], pp. 134-135) said, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” A. W. Pink (The Attributes of God [Baker], p. 82) wrote, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.” So we cannot shove God’s wrath into the closet! R. W. Dale observed (cited by R. C. Sproul, The Cross of Christ Study Guide [Ligonier Ministries], p. 35), “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”
R. Kent Hughes: God is a God of “wrath,” or as some translations have it, “anger.” It is important that we understand exactly what this means or the rest of the passage will be confusing. First, it does not mean that God is given to a capricious, uncontrolled anger. There are two basic words in the Greek language used to express anger. From thumos we get our words thermometer and thermos. This is red-hot anger—the kind that overcomes people when they lose control and punch someone on the nose. It is impulsive and passionate. That is not the word used in our text. The word here is orge, which signiﬁes a settled and abiding condition. It is controlled. “The wrath of God” is not human wrath, which at its best is only a distorted reﬂection of God’s wrath because it is always compromised by the presence of sin. “The wrath of God” is perfect, settled, controlled.
- Divine Wrath is Revealed
“is revealed from heaven”
James Dunn: The clear implication is that the two heavenly revelations are happening concurrently, as well as divine righteousness, so also divine wrath; to take the second ἀποκαλύπτεται as future (Eckstein) destroys the parallel and draws an unnecessary distinction between God’s wrath and the divine action in “he handed over” in παρέδωκεν (vv 24, 26, 28). In the OT the wrath of God has special reference to the covenant relation (SH), but here the implication, quickly confirmed (vv 19 ff.), is that Paul is shifting from a narrower covenant perspective to a more cosmic or universal perspective, from God understood primarily as the God of Israel to God as Creator of all. . .
In brief, his resolution is that the effect of divine wrath upon man is to show that man who rebels against his relation of creaturely dependence on God (which is what faith is) becomes subject to degenerative processes.
John Toews: The point of v. 18 is that the end-time wrath of God is now being revealed in the world through the gospel just as the end-time righteousness of God is being revealed. It is being revealed now, in contrast to a Jewish emphasis on its future manifestation, though it will be revealed fully in the future. The wrath of God has both a present and a future dimension just as does the righteousness of God.
Look at historic biblical examples:
- The Curse instituted at the Fall (including pain of childbirth and difficulty of working in a hostile environment)
- Wrath unleashed against the pride of men at the Tower of Babel
- Wrath unleashed in the worldwide Flood in the days of Noah
- Wrath unleashed against Pharaoh and Egypt in the Exodus
- Wrath unleashed against the unbelieving generation in the wilderness
- Wrath unleashed in the Babylonian Captivity
John MacArthur: And above all, I believe the greatest demonstration of the wrath of God ever given was given on Calvary’s cross. God hates so deeply sin that He actually allowed His own Son to be put to death, the greatest manifestation of the wrath of God. He poured out His fury on His own beloved Son. He would not hold it back even from His own Son. That’s how He hated sin.
Thomas Schreiner: God’s judgments in history, then, anticipate the culmination of his wrath on the day of judgment (cf. Schnabel 2015: 211; Kruse 2012: 88).
Why should we believe that God is still a God of wrath today?
- Present tense of the verb (is being displayed openly)
- God is Unchanging
B. Divine Wrath is Deserved
- Due to Sin
“against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,”
James Dunn: the ἀδικία of men is clearly set in antithesis to the δικαιοσύνη of God (v 17; note also 3:5; cf. 1QS 3.20). “Unrighteousness” is thus more precisely defined as failure to meet the obligations toward God and man which arise out of relationship with God and man. That the two aspects of unrighteousness go together and follow from failure to recognize and accept what is man’s proper relation to God is the thrust of what follows. It is this unrighteousness on the part of men which makes necessary the initiative of God’s righteousness.
Timothy Keller: What draws God’s anger is “godlessness and wickedness.” The first speaks to a disregard of God’s rights, a destruction of our vertical relationship with him. The second refers to a disregard of human rights to love, truth, justice etc, a destruction of horizontal relationships with those around us. It is a breaking of what Jesus said were the greatest two commandments: to love God, and to love our neighbor (Mark 12:29-31).
John Toews: The two words together offer a complete description of sin. Ungodliness focuses sin as an attack on the holiness and majesty of God. Unrighteousness defines sin as a violation of God’s just order in the world. Both stand opposed to the righteousness of God, and both are characterized as assaults on the truth.
- Due to Suppresson of Revealed Truth
“who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,”
Frank Thielman: God’s wrath is an expression of his righteousness because it is fair: he brings it against human beings who know the truth about him but intentionally stifle that truth.
R. Kent Hughes: What mankind holds down is the basic knowledge of the majestic transcending power of God as Creator and Sustainer. I cannot agree with those who think that this verse teaches a full-blown natural theology wherein all the attributes of God are easily discernible to the observer of nature, so that by watching the universe they come to the explicit conclusion of God’s existence and the need for the sacriﬁce of Christ. Our text is very clear that “his invisible attributes” are “his eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20), and that is what Nature reveals. Along with this, man sees by implication his own ﬁniteness—the great gulf between himself and God. . .
Noting the order and design of our universe, Kepler—founder of modern astronomy, discoverer of the “Three Planetary Laws of Motion,” and originator of the term satellite—said, “The undevout astronomer is mad.”
Lenski: Whenever the truth starts to exert itself and makes them feel uneasy in their moral nature, they hold it down, suppress it. Some drown its voice by rushing on into their immoralities; others strangle the disturbing voice by argument and by denial.
Application: How do we know whether we are in danger of God’s Wrath?
Are we suppressing the truth in unrighteousness?
II. (:19-20) ACCESS TO TRUTH — GOD HAS CLEARLY REVEALED HIMSELF IN NATURE SO THAT MEN ARE WITHOUT EXCUSE
(What about those who haven’t heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ?
How can God ever be angry with them?)
A. (:19) Universal Internal Awareness of God’s Truth
“because that which is known about God is evident within them;
for God made it evident to them.”
Ps. 53 — it is a fool who says there is no God
Steven Tackett: Remember, the Gentiles were never given the Law of Moses. However, all show the work of the law written in their hearts. How is this possible? It is because God gave all men a conscience; the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. Everyone knows there is a God. They know it naturally; they know it inherently. No one can look at creation and say there is no God. The other part of inherently knowing the difference between right from wrong is knowing there are consequences to their actions. We know inherently that there is right and wrong and that wrong must be punished. It is for that reason that their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another. So, what people naturally do, they either accuse or excuse.
Michael Bird: Theologians have sometimes spoken of a twofold natural knowledge of God. First, an innate knowledge of God is hardwired into human existence — a sense of the divine, or an inherent awareness of God’s being that connects immediately with human existence. Second, a derivative knowledge of God can be inferred from the immensity, order, and beauty of creation itself. Paul arguably refers to a knowledge of God of this order that is manifested, literally, “in them” (en autois) in vv. 19 – 20. As Schreiner comments, “God has stitched into the fabric of the human mind his existence and power, so that they are instinctively recognized when one views the created world.”
Frank Thielman: Paul implies by this statement that human beings cannot know everything about God. They can only know as much about him as God allows them to know, but he has allowed all human beings to know enough to hold them responsible for worshiping him and treating one another justly.
Newell: Napoleon, on a warship in the Mediterranean on a star-lit night, passed a group of his officers who were mocking at the idea of a God. He stopped, and sweeping his hand toward the stars, said, “Gentlemen, you must get rid of those first!”
John MacArthur: General revelation is the foundation of all condemnation. Men have the opportunity because God is evident everywhere.
B. (:20a) Universal External Revelation of God’s Truth Via Nature
- Natural Revelation Began at Creation
“For since the creation of the world”
Robert Gundry: “Since the world’s creation” doesn’t leave human beings a chronological excuse for their ungodliness and unrighteousness any more than they have the excuse of unclarity. God’s everlasting power and deity have been clearly visible and thus understood from the very start. Ignorance is no excuse, but human beings can’t even plead ignorance as an excuse. Why? Because “they knew God” but “didn’t glorify [him] as God.”
- Natural Revelation Makes Plain Key Invisible Divine Attributes
“His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature,
have been clearly seen,”
R. Kent Hughes: We must ever keep before us the “eternal power and divine nature” of God as revealed in creation! We must always consciously strive to remember his majestic transcendence and his “otherness” or we will fall into idolatry. Quite frankly, even those of us in the evangelical tradition, with its valid and needed emphasis on the availability of God in Christ, are in danger of this form of idolatry. Very often we hear God addressed in casual terms that would scandalize some of our earthly employers. Sometimes we hear music that so sentimentalizes Christ that he is emptied of his divinity. We need to be careful! We must never address God with anything but the most humble attitude. We must never jest about him or about divine things. We must keep our own creatureliness and his supremacy before us.
John Calvin: (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 71-72), His eternity appears evident, because he is the maker of all things—his power, because he holds all things in his hand and continues their existence—his wisdom, because he has arranged things in such an exquisite order—his goodness, for there is no other cause than himself, why he created all things, and no other reason, why he should be induced to preserve them—his justice, because in his government he punishes the guilty and defends the innocent—his mercy, because he bears with so much forbearance the perversity of men—and his truth, because he is unchangeable.
Illustration of missing cupcake — “the evidence is all over the little boy’s face”
Nature reveals power, orderliness, consistency, faithfulness
Natural revelation sufficient to condemn but not to save —
Specific gospel message about Christ is still needed
- Natural Revelation Enhances Human Understanding
“being understood through what has been made,”
Thomas Constable: Four things characterize natural revelation:
- First, it is a clear testimony; everyone is aware of it.
- Second, everyone can understand it. We can draw conclusions about the Creator from His creation. “His invisible attributes … have been clearly perceived” is an oxymoron (a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear together).
- Third, this revelation has gone out since the creation of the world in every generation.
- Fourth, it is a limited revelation in that it does not reveal everything about God (e.g., His love and grace) but only some things about Him (i.e., His power and divine nature).
C. (:20b) Universal Condemnation of All Men
“so that they are without excuse.”
Conclusion: God will judge men against the revelation they have.
III. (:21-23) PERVERSION OF TRUTH — FALLEN MEN REPLACE GOD’S GLORIOUS TRUTH WITH THINGS THAT ARE FAR INFERIOR
A. (:21a) The Privilege of Revelation Brings Accountability
- Privilege of Revelation
“For even though they knew God,”
a. Do We Honor God?
“they did not honor Him as God,”
Thomas Schreiner: We need to reflect further on the main thesis that Paul advances. Failing to glorify God is the root sin. Indeed, glorifying God is virtually equivalent with rendering him proper worship, since Paul describes (v. 25) the same reality as surrendering the truth of God for worship of the creature (Hooker 1959–60: 305). We saw in 1:17 that the righteousness of God is rooted in his desire for the glory and honor of his name. He saves his people because it will bring glory to his name. It is hardly surprising to see, then, that the essence of sin is a rejection of God’s glory and honor. Sin doesn’t consist first and foremost in acts that transgress God’s law, although verses 24–32 indicate that sin includes the transgression of the law. Particular sins all stem from a rejection of God as God, a failure to give him honor and glory.
b. Do We Give Thanks?
“or give thanks;”
James Dunn: Paul is obviously thinking more in terms of thanksgiving as characteristic of a whole life, as the appropriate response of one whose daily experience is shaped by the recognition that he stands in debt to God, that his very life and experience of living is a gift from God (cf. 4 Ezra 8.60); cf. Kuss. In Paul’s perspective this attitude of awe (the fear of the Lord) and thankful dependence is how knowledge of God should express itself. But human behavior is marked by an irrational disjunction between what man knows to be the true state of affairs and a life at odds with that knowledge. This failure to give God his due and to receive life as God’s gift is Paul’s way of expressing the primal sin of humankind.
B. (:21b-23) The Rejection of Revelation Replaces Glorious God with Inferior Idols
- (:21b) Darkening of Mind and Heart
a. Impact on Mind
“but they became futile in their speculations,”
b. Impact on Heart
“and their foolish heart was darkened.”
James Dunn: Paul’s point is that man’s whole ability to respond and function not least as a rational being has been damaged; without the illumination and orientation which comes from the proper recognition of God his whole center is operating in the dark, lacking direction and dissipating itself in what are essentially trifles.
Thomas Schreiner: The limitations of one’s knowledge of God through natural revelation should be acknowledged. Nothing is said here about God’s mercy and love. The natural order with its hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods does not clearly or always communicate God’s love. The revelation through nature doesn’t bring salvation; Paul’s purpose is to underscore that the knowledge of God obtained through creation is suppressed and therefore distorted.
Grant Osborne: The heart is the seat of feeling, intelligence, and moral choice. Their hearts are foolish because they refuse to recognize God (see 1:22). Futile thinking is followed by futile living. Then both mind and heart become devoid of light. When confused thinking becomes a permanent mind-set, people are unable to turn to God.
- (:22) Delusion
“Professing to be wise, they became fools,”
- (:23) Degeneration
“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.”
Michael Gorman: Nature abhors a vacuum, so desertion of the one true God led to blatant idolatry (1:23, 25) in an act of exchange (1:23, 25; see also 1:26). Godlessness, or being un-godded, is impossible for humans, and so it inevitably devolves into idolatry. This idolatry led in turn to various immoralities (1:24, 26–27, 28b–31; cf. Eph 4:17–19). As John Calvin observed, “Surely, just as waters boil up from a vast, full spring, so does an immense crowd of gods flow from the human mind, while each one, in wandering about with too much license, wrongly invents this or that about God himself.” In fact, Calvin adds, human nature is “a perpetual factory of idols.” . . . Stephen Fowl, in his book Idolatry, argues that a basic meaning of idolatry is pledging allegiance to something that is not God. This does not happen overnight, however. We don’t wake up and say, “Today I will become an idolater!” Rather, Fowl maintains, idolatry is a process of small decisions and compromises that create dispositions, habits, and practices that eventually become idolatry. The result, says Paul, is behavior that is appropriate to the resulting misplaced devotion and allegiance. But such behavior is a misguided replacement for the sort of behavior appropriate to a covenantal relationship of love and obedience to God.
Frank Thielman: Paul designed his description of what human beings worshiped instead of God to emphasize the ridiculous nature of the exchange. Human beings worshiped “the likeness of the image of corruptible humanity.” The wordiness of the phrase is a rhetorical move called pleonasm, which multiplies words to “enrich the thought.” Here, Paul is communicating just how far human beings had moved from the worship of the incorruptible God. According to Genesis 1:26 (LXX), human beings were made in the “image” (εἰκών) and “likeness” (ὁμοίωσις) of God, but here Paul speaks not even of people worshiping other people but of people worshiping “the likeness of the image” of other people, something God had expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy 4:16 (LXX). In contrast to God, moreover, human beings are “corruptible” (φθαρτός), that is, they wither and die quickly. As if this were not enough, people moved ever further from God as they gave their worship to a variety of animals. Paul’s list follows an order that matches the animals’ habitats from high to low, moving from the heavens (“birds”) to just above the surface of the earth (“quadrupeds”) to the surface of the earth itself (“reptiles”)—ever further, in other words, from God.
Timothy Keller: We must worship something. We were created to worship the Creator, so if we reject him, we will worship something else. We are “tellic” creatures—purposed people; we have to live for something. There has to be something which captures our imagination and our allegiance, which is the resting place of our deepest hopes and which we look to calm our deepest fears. Whatever that thing is, we worship it, and so we serve it. It becomes our bottom line, the thing we cannot live without, defining and validating everything we do. . .
This exchange in our worship and service undoes the created order. Humans are uniquely made in the image of God, made to relate to him in his world and reflect his nature and goodness to the world (Genesis 1:26-29). In Romans 1:23, humanity turns its back on God and turns to bowing down to created things. We do not worship what is immortal; we worship what is made. Put another way, we do not worship the Creator; we worship the created (v 25).
From God’s perspective, this is the behavior of “fools” (v 22). How has this happened? Because, Paul says in a few very revealing words in verse 21, in refusing to treat God as God, and live in dependence on and gratitude to him, “their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” In order to suppress the truth that there is a Creator, people engage in non-sequiturs and irrational leaps. Since the fundamental truth about God is being held down and ignored, life cannot be lived in a consistent way.