Reasons for the Wrath of God—Part 1 (Romans 1:19-21)

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. (1:19–21)

The head of the department of evangelism for a major denomination in America said, “We don’t need to evangelize the people of the world who have never heard the message of salvation. We only need to announce to them that they’re already saved.”

That leader reflects the rising tide of universalism, the belief that, because God is too loving and gracious to send anyone to hell, everyone ultimately will go to heaven. If that were true, there obviously would be no place for judgment in the proclamation of the gospel. Just as obviously there would be no place for biblical evangelism, as the person just quoted contends.

Some years ago, an article in The Times of London reported that fourteen church study groups in Woodford looked at the Old Testament psalms and concluded that eighty-four of them were “not fit for Christians to sing” (“Psalms Chosen from New Testament” [23 August 1962], sec. 1, p. 10). They reasoned that the wrath and vengeance reflected in those psalms was not compatible with the Christian gospel of love and grace.

But Scripture makes clear that justice, wrath, and judgment are as much divine attributes as are love, mercy, and grace. In chapters 27–28 of Deuteronomy, more than fifty verses detail God’s judgment on those who violate His commandments. In response to Jeremiah’s plea for vengeance against his enemies, God said,

“Behold, I am about to bring a calamity upon this place, at which the ears of everyone that hears of it will tingle. Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind; therefore, behold, days are coming,” declared the Lord, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter. And I shall make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I shall cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I shall give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth.” (Jer. 19:3–7)

Isaiah declared, “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it” (Isa. 13:9). Nahum testified that “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Nah. 1:2–3).

As was noted in the previous chapter, lest some think that God’s wrath and judgment are primarily Old Testament concepts, it should be noted that the New Testament has equally vivid portrayals of those divine attributes. When a group of Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist for baptism, he dismissed them with the scathing words, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:7–8). A short while later he said of Jesus, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11–12). On a later occasion John told some inquiring Jews, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).

Jesus was God incarnate and therefore love incarnate, but He spoke more about judgment and hell than anyone else in Scripture. He probably spoke more about those truths than everyone else in the New Testament combined. The Sermon on the Mount is replete with warnings about divine wrath and judgment. “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court,” Jesus said; “and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go in to the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:22). “And if your right eye makes you stumble,” He said, “tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your fight hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you, for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to got into hell” (vv. 29–30). He declared that “the sons of the kingdom [unbelieving Jews] shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12).

As He sent out the Twelve to witness in Israel, Jesus told them, “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city” (Matt. 10:14–15). Later during that same time of instruction He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; bur rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (v. 28). He warned the multitudes “that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37; cf. vv. 41–42; see also 13:40, 49; 16:26; 18:34–35; 22:13; 23:33; 24:50–51; 25:26–30).

Paul declared that it is because of “the fear of the Lord [that] we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). In other words, it is because of God’s fearful judgment on unbelieving mankind that we should be motivated to witness to God’s provision of escape through Jesus Christ. Luke reports that when Paul began to speak about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix [the governor] became frightened” (Acts 24:25). Paul warned the Ephesian church: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). The same apostle warned unbelievers: “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5; cf. vv. 8–9, 16).

The author of Hebrews declared, “For if we go on sinning will-fully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26–27). “For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth,” the writer says later, “much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven” (12:25).

In his vision from Patmos, the apostle John heard an angel warn unbelievers, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night” (Rev. 14:9–11).

The New Testament ends with the somber warning from the Lord Himself:

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. … I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev. 22:14–15, 18–19)

People today, as in times past, deny that God is wrathful, and those denials come in two basic forms. One teaches such ideas as soul sleep, the notion that an unbeliever simply goes into eternal sleep at death, without suffering any sort of conscious punishment. The other form of denial is universalism, which teaches that ultimately God will save everyone. But both of those heresies directly contradict God’s Word.

Four cautions are in order in regard to spurious teachings about God’s wrath. First, we should be aware of the great appeal to the natural man of such concepts as unconscious soul sleep and universalism, both of which deny God’s judgment and wrath. Second, we should recognize the pervasive influence of Christian liberalism, which views God as being too loving to condemn anyone and necessarily denies the authenticity of the texts that state otherwise. Third, we should realize that religious groups that deny God’s wrath are frequently cultic. And fourth, we should remember that denial of God’s wrath removes the purpose and motivation for witnessing, namely, the God-glorifying salvation of unbelievers from sin and hell.

Bible teacher R. A. Torrey wisely wrote: “Shallow views of sin and of God’s holiness, and of the glory of Jesus Christ and His claims upon us, lie at the bottom of weak theories of the doom of the impenitent. When we see sin in all its hideousness and enormity, the Holiness of God in all its perfection, and the glory of Jesus Christ in all its infinity, nothing but a doctrine that those who persist in the choice of sin, who love darkness rather than light, and who persist in the rejection of the Son of God, shall endure everlasting anguish, will satisfy the demands of our own moral intuitions. … The more closely men walk with God and the more devoted they become to His service, the more likely they are to believe this doctrine” (What the Bible Teaches [New York: Revell, 1898], pp. 311–13).

Throughout the history of the church, faithful men of God have understood and proclaimed the biblical truths that God is a God of justice and judgment and that His wrath is against all unbelief and ungodliness. That knowledge was the great motivation for their tireless service in winning the lost. John Knox pleaded before God, “Give me Scotland or I die.” As the young Hudson Taylor contemplated the fate of the unreached multitudes of China, he earnestly prayed, “I feel that I cannot go on living unless I do something for China.” Upon landing in India, Henry Martyn said, “Here I am in the midst of heathen midnight and savage oppression. Now, my clear Lord, let me burn out for Thee.” Adoniram Judson, the famed missionary to Burma, spent long, tiresome years translating the Bible for that people. He was eventually put into prison because of his work, and while there his wife died. After being released, he contracted a serious disease that sapped what little energy he had left. Nevertheless he prayed, “Lord, let me finish my work. Spare me long enough to put the saving Word into the hands of the people.” James Chalmers, a Scottish missionary to the South Sea Islands, was so burdened for the lost that someone wrote of him, “In Christ’s service he endured hardness, hunger, shipwreck and exhausting toil, and did it all joyfully. He risked his life a thousand times and finally was clubbed to death, beheaded, and eaten by men whose friend he was and whom he sought to enlighten.” Although he was unable to go overseas, Robert Arthington enabled countless others to go. By working hard and living frugally he managed to give over $500,000 to the work of foreign missions. He testified, “Gladly would I make the floor my bed, a box my chair, and another box my table, rather than that men should perish for want of the knowledge of Christ.”

Those faithful saints, and many others like them, have clearly understood the wrath and the judgment of God and the consequent horror of men dying without Christ. Without such understanding there is no basis for evangelism. If men are not lost, hopeless, and incapable of glorifying God apart from Christ, there is no reason for them to be saved by Him.

The biblical order in any gospel presentation is always first the warning of danger and then the way of escape, first the judgment on sin and then the means of pardon, first the message of condemnation and then the offer of forgiveness, first the bad news of guilt and then the good news of grace. The whole message and purpose of the loving, redeeming grace of God offering eternal life through Jesus Christ rests upon the reality of man’s universal guilt of abandoning God and thereby being under His sentence of eternal condemnation and death.

Consistent with that approach, the main body of Romans begins with 1:18, a clear affirmation of God’s wrath “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” As the apostle points out in his Ephesian letter, all unbelievers are “by nature children of wrath” (2:3), born unto God’s wrath as their natural inheritance in fallen mankind. With the Fall, God’s smile turned to a frown. Moses rhetorically asked God, “Who understands the power of Thine anger, and Thy fury, according to the fear that is due Thee?” (Ps. 90:11).

The Puritan writer Thomas Watson said, “As the love of God makes every bitter thing sweet, so the curse of God makes every sweet thing bitter” (A Body of Divinity [Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1983 reprint], p. 151). A more contemporary writer, George Rogers, said that God’s “righteous anger never rises, never abates: it is always at flood tide in the presence of sin because He is unchangeably and inflexibly righteous” (Studies in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1 [Los Angeles: G. Rogers, 1936], p. 40).

How could One who delights only in what is pure and lovely not loathe what is impure and ugly? How could He who is infinitely holy disregard sin, which by its very nature violates that holiness? How could He who loves righteousness not hate and act severely against all unrighteousness? How could He who is the sum of all excellency look with complacency on virtue and vice equally? He cannot do those things, because He is holy, just, and good. Wrath is the only just response a perfectly holy God could make to unholy men. Righteous wrath therefore is every bit as much an element of God’s divine perfection as any other of His attributes, as Paul makes quite clear in Romans 9:22–23 (see comments on that text).

Paul is determined for us to know that before we can understand the grace of God we must first understand His wrath, that before we can understand the meaning of the death of Christ we must first understand why man’s sin made that death necessary, that before we can begin to comprehend how loving, merciful, and gracious God is we must first see how rebellious, sinful, and guilty unbelieving mankind is.

Tragically, even many evangelicals have come to soft-pedal the theme of God’s wrath and judgment. Even so much as a minimum mention of hell has been quietly removed from much preaching. Wrath, when mentioned at all, is frequently depersonalized, as if somehow it is worked out automatically by some deistic operation in which God Himself is not directly involved.

Many are inclined to wonder if man really deserves such a harsh fate. After all, no person asks to be born. Why, then, they surmise, should a person who had nothing to do with his own birth spend eternity in hell for being born sinful? The question, “Why is everyone born under God’s wrath and condemnation?” deserves attention. It is those very questions that Paul answers in Romans 1:19–23, where he explains why God is justified in His wrath against all sinful men.

Some people, even some pagans, have recognized God’s right to be angry at man’s sin. During the priesthood of Eli, while the young Samuel still served under him in the Temple, Israel had reached a low spiritual level. There was religious tokenism but little genuine faith or obedience. Thinking to use the ark of the covenant much as a magic charm to assure their victory, Israel took it into battle against the Philistines. But Israel not only lost 30,000 men in the battle but also lost the ark of the covenant to the enemy. After suffering numerous disastrous and embarrassing experiences with the ark, the Philistines decided to return it to Israel. When they returned it, they sent along a guilt offering to assuage the anger of God against them. Although their understanding of Israel’s God was faulty and the offering they presented to Him was thoroughly pagan, they nevertheless recognized His power and His right to judge and punish them as being guilty of violating His honor (see 1 Sam. 4–6).

When Achan stole some of the booty from Jericho, all of which was to be given to the Tabernacle treasury, his sin caused Israel to be defeated at Ai. When his disobedience was exposed, he readily confessed, saying, “Truly, I have sinned against the Lord, the God Israel” (Josh. 7:20).

God is absolutely just, never condemning unless condemnation is deserved. Achan knew God’s law given through Moses and he knew of God’s special ban on taking the spoil from Jericho for personal use. The pagan Philistines, on the other hand, knew only of God’s tremendous power. But Achan and the Philistines both knew they were guilty before God and deserved His wrath. In Romans 1:19–23, Paul gives four reasons why they, and every person born except Jesus Christ, fully deserve to be under God’s wrath. Those reasons may be identified as God’s revelation, man’s rejection, man’s rationalization, and man’s religion.

God’s Revelation

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. (1:19–20)

First of all God is justified in His wrath against sinners because of the revelation of Himself to all mankind. Romans 1:18—2:16 pertains especially to Gentiles, who did not have the benefit of God’s revealed Word as did Israel. Israel, of course, was doubly guilty, because she not only rejected God’s natural, universal revelation of Himself in creation and conscience but even rejected His unique written revelation through Scripture.

The Gift of Revelation

because that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them. (1:19)

Paul’s point here is that, even apart from His written revelation, that which is known about God is evident within even pagan Gentiles, for God made it evident to them. The Lord testifies through Paul that His outward, visible manifestation of Himself is universally known by man. It is evident within them as well as without them. All men have evidence of God, and what their physical senses can perceive of Him their inner senses can understand to some extent. The Philistines both saw and acknowledged God’s power, as did the Canaanites, the Egyptians, and every other people who have lived on earth. The rebels who built the tower of Babel both saw and acknowledged God’s greatness, as did the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. All men know something and understand something of the reality and the truth of God. They are responsible for a proper response to that revelation. Any wrong response is “inexcusable.”

Theologian Augustus Strong wrote, “The Scriptures … both assume and declare that the knowledge that God is, is universal (Rom. 1:19–21,

28, 32; 2:15). God has inlaid the evidence of [that] fundamental truth in the very nature of man, so that nowhere is He without a witness” (Systematic Theology [Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1979 reprint], p. 68). Unregenerate man has “no help and [is] without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), not because he has no knowledge of God but because he naturally rebels against the knowledge of God that he has. As Paul has already attested (Rom. 1:18), sinful mankind naturally suppresses God’s truth with his own unrighteousness.

No one can find God on his own initiative or by his own wisdom or searching. Yet God has never left man to his own initiative and understanding but has graciously provided abundant evidence of Himself. He has sovereignly and universally made Himself evident to men. No person, therefore, can plead ignorance of God, because, entirely apart from Scripture, God has always revealed Himself and continues to reveal Himself to man. God is perfectly just and therefore could not rightly condemn those who are totally ignorant of Him. As Paul unequivocally asserts here, no person can rightly claim ignorance of God, and therefore no person can rightly claim that God’s wrath against him is unjust. Every person is accountable for the revelation of God that may lead one to salvation.

Tertullian, the prominent early church Father, said that it was not the pen of Moses that initiated the knowledge of the Creator. The vast majority of mankind, though they had never heard the name of Moses-to say nothing of his book-know the God of Moses nonetheless (cf. An Answer to the Jews, chap. 2).

A disease left Helen Keller as a very young girl without sight, hearing, and speech. Through Anne Sullivan’s tireless and self-less efforts, Helen finally learned to communicate through touch and even learned to talk. When Miss Sullivan first tried to tell Helen about God, the girl’s response was that she already knew about Him-just didn’t know His name (Helen Keller, The Story of My Life [New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905], pp. 368–74).

That which is known could be rendered “that which is knowable.” Obviously, finite man cannot know everything about God even with the perfect revelation of Scripture. Paul’s point is that that which is capable of being known about God apart from special revelation is indeed known by fallen mankind. The characteristics of God that are reflected in His creation give unmistakable testimony to Him.

While ministering in Lystra, Paul told his Gentile audience about the God “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” He went on to explain that “in the generations gone by [God] permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15–17). The very goodness of life testifies to the goodness of the God who provides it.

On his next journey Paul told the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill at Athens,

While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “to an unknown god .” What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist. (Acts 17:23–28)

In other words, God controls the nations, their boundaries, and their destinies. He controls time, the seasons, and every other aspect both of heaven and earth. Even more remarkable than that, Paul says, because God has graciously chosen to make Himself known and approachable, “He is not far from each one of us.”

John speaks of Jesus Christ as “the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:9). He was not speaking about the saving knowledge of God, which comes only through faith, but of the intellectual knowledge of God, which comes to every human being through God’s self-manifestation in His creation. Every person has a witness of God, and therefore every person is accountable to follow the opportunity to respond to Him in faith.

The Content of Revelation

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. (1:20)

Next Paul specifies the content of the revelation of Himself that God makes known to all mankind. Since the creation of the world, he declares, God has made His invisible attributes visible. The particular

attributes that man can perceive in part through his natural senses are God’s eternal power and His divine nature. God’s eternal power refers to His never-failing omnipotence, which is reflected in the awesome creation which that power both brought into being and sustains. God’s divine nature of kindness and graciousness is reflected, as Paul told the Lystrans, in the “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).

The noted theologian Charles Hodge testified, “God therefore has never left himself without a witness. His existence and perfections have ever been so manifested that his rational creatures are bound to acknowledge and worship him as the true and only God” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983 reprint], p. 37).

God’s natural revelation of Himself is not obscure or selective, observable only by a few perceptive souls who are specially gifted. His revelation of Himself through creation can be clearly seen by everyone, being understood through what has been made.

Even in the most ancient of times, long before the telescope and microscope were invented, the greatness of God was evident both in the vastness and in the tiny intricacies of nature. Men could look at the stars and discover the fixed order of their orbits. They could observe a small seed reproduce itself into a giant tree, exactly like the one from which it came. They could see the marvelous cycles of the seasons, the rain, and the snow. They witnessed the marvel of human birth and the glory of the sunrise and sunset. Even without the special revelation David had, they could see that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Ps. 19:1).

Some birds are able to navigate by the stars. Even if hatched and raised in a windowless building, if shown an artificial sky, they immediately are able to orient themselves to the proper place to which to migrate. The archerfish is able to fire drops of water with amazing force and accuracy, knocking insects out of the air. The bombardier beetle separately produces two different chemicals, which, when released and combined, explode in the face of an enemy. Yet the explosion never occurs prematurely and never harms the beetle itself. No wonder David declared that “power belongs to God” (Ps. 62:11) and that Asaph (Ps. 79:11) and Nahum (1:3) spoke of the greatness of His power.

Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has said:

Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world. … The essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same. Consider the enormousness of the problem: Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks what cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? And science cannot answer these questions. …

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been there for centuries. (God and the Astronomers [New York: Norton, 1978], pp. 14, 114, 116)

With giant telescopes such as the 200 inch-diameter instrument at Mount Palomar in California astronomers can observe objects 4 billion light years away, a distance of more than 25 septillion miles! (James Reid, God, the Atom, and the Universe [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968).

At any given time, there are an average of 1,800 storms in operation in the world. The energy needed to generate those storms amounts to the incredible figure of 1,300,000,000 horsepower. By comparison, a large earth-moving machine has 420 horsepower and requires a hundred gallons of fuel a day to operate. Just one of those storms, producing a rain of four inches over an area of ten thousand square miles, would require energy equivalent to the burning of 640,000,000 tons of coal to evaporate enough water for such a rain. And to cool those vapors and collect them in clouds would take another 800,000,000 horsepower of refrigeration working night and day for a hundred days.

Agricultural studies have determined that the average farmer in Minnesota gets 407,510 gallons of rainwater per acre per year, free of charge, of course. The state of Missouri has some 70,000 square miles and averages 38 inches of rain a year. That amount of water is equal to a lake 250 miles long, 60 miles wide, and 22 feet deep.

The U. S. Natural Museum has determined that there are at least 10 million species of insects, including some 2,500 varieties of ants. There are about 5 billion birds in the United States, among which some species are able to fly 500 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Mallard ducks can fly 60 miles an hour, eagles 100 miles an hour, and falcons can dive at speeds of 180 miles an hour.

The earth is 25,000 miles in circumference, weighs 6 septillion, 588 sextillion tons, and hangs unsupported in space. It spins at 1,000 miles per hour with absolute precision and careens through space around the sun at the speed of 1,000 miles per minute in an orbit 580 million miles long.

The head of a comet may be from 10,000 to 1,000,000 miles long, have a tail 100,000,000 miles long, and travel at a speed of 350 miles per second. If the sures radiated energy could be converted into horsepower, it would be the equivalent of 500 million, million, billion horsepower. Each second it consumes some 4 million tons of matter. To travel at the speed of light (ca. 186,281 miles per second) across the Milky Way, the galaxy in which our solar system is located, would take 125,000 years. And our galaxy is but one of millions.

The human heart is about the size of its owner’s fist. An adult heart weighs less than half a pound, yet can do enough work in twelve hours to lift 65 tons one inch off the ground. A water molecule is composed of only three atoms. But if all the molecules in one drop of water were the size of a grain of sand, they could make a road one foot thick and a half mile wide that would stretch from Los Angeles to New York. Amazingly, however, the atom itself is largely space, its actual matter taking up only one trillionth of its volume.

Except to a mind will-fully closed to the obvious, it is inconceivable that such power, intricacy, and harmony could have developed by any means but that of a Master Designer who rules the universe. It would be infinitely more reasonable to think that the separate pieces of a watch could be shaken in a bag and eventually become a dependable timepiece than to think that the world could have evolved into its present state by blind chance.

Even a pagan should be able to discern with the psalmist that surely the One who made the ear and the eye is Himself able to hear and to see (see Ps. 94:9). If we can hear, then whoever made us surely must understand hearing and seeing. If we, His creatures, can think, then surely the mind of our Creator must be able to reason.

Men are judged and sent to hell not because they do not live up to the light evidenced in the universe but because ultimately that rejection leads them to reject Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment,” Jesus said; “concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8–9). But if a person lives up to the light of the revelation he has, God will provide for his hearing the gospel by some means or another. In His sovereign, predetermined grace He reaches out to sinful mankind. “As I live!” declared the Lord through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). God does not desire “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He will give His elect the privilege of hearing the gospel and will bring them to Himself. “You will seek Me and find me,” the Lord promised through Jeremiah, “when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

Because the Ethiopian eunuch was sincerely seeking God, the Holy Spirit sent Philip to witness to him. Upon hearing the gospel, he believed and was baptized (Acts 8:26–39). Because Cornelius, a Gentile centurion in the Roman army, was “a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually,” God sent Peter to him to explain the gospel. “While Peter was still speaking, … the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message,” and they were “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:2, 44, 48). Because Lydia was a true worshiper of God, when she heard the gospel, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts. 16:14).

Man’s Rejection

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. (1:21)

God is also justified in His wrath and judgment because of man’s willful rejection of Him. Paul explicitly declares that though they knew God through this natural, general revelation, unbelieving men still rejected Him. Although man is innately conscious of God’s existence and power, he is just as innately and wickedly inclined to reject that knowledge. The natural tendency of unregenerate mankind is to “proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). As Paul reminds believers, “We also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3).

A certain evolutionist said, “I refuse to believe in God, so what other alternative do I have but evolution?” The man was honest, but he gave clear testimony to the fact that it was not evidence for evolution that led him to disbelief in God but rather his disbelief in God that led him to embrace evolution.

Donald Grey Barnhouse made this potent observation:

Will God give man brains to see these things and will man then fail to exercise his will toward that God? The sorrowful answer is that both of these things are true. God will give a man brains to smelt iron and make a hammer head and nails. God will grow a tree and give man strength to cut it down and brains to fashion a hammer handle from its wood. And when man has the hammer and the nails, God will put out His hand and let man drive nails through it and place Him on a cross in the supreme demonstration that men are without excuse. (Romans, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], p. 245)

In verse 21, Paul mentions four ways in which men exhibit their rejection of God: by dishonoring Him, by being thankless to Him, by being futile in their speculations concerning Him, and by being darkened in their hearts about Him.

First, man fails to honor God as God. This is the basic expression of the root sin of pride which is at the core of man’s fallenness. Doxazō (honor) is probably better translated here as glory, as it is in numerous versions. The worst deed committed in the universe is failure to give God honor, or glory. Above everything else, God is to be glorified. To glorify God is to exalt Him, to recognize Him as supremely worthy of honor, and to acknowledge His divine attributes. Since the glory of God is also the sum of all the attributes of His being, of all He has revealed of Himself to man, to give God glory is to acknowledge His glory and extol it. We cannot give Him glory by adding to His perfection, but by praising His perfection. We glorify Him by praising His glory!

Scripture continually calls upon believers to glorify the Lord. David admonishes us: “Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name” (Ps. 29:1–2). “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do,” Paul says, “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). One day the twenty-four elders will fall down before Christ on His heavenly throne and declare, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Rev. 4:11).

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism eloquently declares, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Man was created to glorify God (see Lev. 10:3; 1 Chron. 16:24–29; Ps. 148; Rom. 15:5–6), and for him to fail to give God glory is therefore the ultimate affront to his Creator.

After they were created in God’s own image, Adam and Eve continually experienced God’s presence and glory. They communed directly with Him and they praised Him and acknowledged His glory and honor. But when they sinned by disobeying God’s command and seeking to gain glory and honor for themselves, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). Sin brought separation from God, and Adam and Eve no longer sought God’s presence or yearned to bring Him glory. Ever since that time, fallen man has sought to avoid God and to deny His glory and even His very existence.

Throughout Scripture, God has revealed many elements of His glory. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the Lord manifested His goodness, graciousness, and compassion, saying, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Ex. 33:19). The Lord placed Moses in the cleft of the rock and covered him with His hand, lest he see His full glory and be consumed. He then allowed Moses to view Him partially from behind as He passed by. As God presented Himself before Moses, He also gave a litany of His divine attributes, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth; who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex. 33:20-34:7; emphasis added).

Although He had delivered them from bondage in Egypt and given them His holy law by which to live, the people persistently rebelled against God and against His appointed leader, Moses. Yet God continued to manifest His glory to His chosen people. After the Tabernacle was built, the Lord filled it with His glory as the sign of His divine presence with His people (Ex. 40:34). As Israel moved about in the wilderness for forty years, God manifested His presence and His glory through the pillar of cloud that guided them by day and the pillar of fire that reassured them by night (vv. 36–38). After the Temple was built by Solomon, the cloud of the Lord’s glory filled the holy place there (1 Kings 8:11). Yet Israel continued to rebel against the Lord through countless kinds of false worship (see Ezek. 8:4–18). When she persistently refused to turn from her sin, God’s glory eventually departed from the Temple (Ezek. 11:22–23), and at that point the theocratic kingdom of Israel came to an end.

The glory of God did not return to earth until Messiah came. As the veiled incarnation of God’s glory, Jesus Christ manifested divine glory through His grace and truth (John 1:14). On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus presented Himself before Peter, James, and John in a unique manifestation of His royal splendor (Matt. 17:2). Paul pointed up the power of God’s glory when he declared that “Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father,” (Rom. 6:4). In less dramatic but just as certain ways, Jesus was a living testimony to God’s glory through His miracles and through His love, truth, mercy, kindness, and grace.

The rest of the created world, however, has never revolted against God or sought to hide His glory as has man. As already cited, David exulted that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God, and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Ps. 19:1). Psalm 148 calls on the entire universe to proclaim God’s glory. The animals do just what God has created them to do. The flowers bloom just as God designed them to, and the butterfly gently and beautifully flies from place to place, testifying to God’s beauty and order.

But recognizing God’s glorious attributes and acts and glorifying Him for them is precisely what fallen men do not do. Millions upon millions of people have lived in the midst of God’s wonderful universe and yet proudly refused to recognize Him as its Creator and to affirm His majesty and glory. And for that willful, foolish rejection they are without excuse as they stand under God’s righteous judgment. The person who can live in the midst of God’s marvelous creation and yet refuse to recognize Him as its Creator and affirm His majesty and glory is a fool indeed.

Through Jeremiah, the Lord warned His people, “Listen and give heed, do not be haughty, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God, before He brings darkness and before your feet stumble on the dusky mountains, and while you are hoping for light He makes it into deep darkness, and turns it into gloom” (Jer. 13:15–16). When King Herod proudly accepted the crowd’s acclamation that he spoke “with the voice of a god and not of a man, … immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:22–23).

When Christ returns to earth, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt. 24:29). And at that moment, when all the natural lights of the universe are extinguished, the dazzling divine light of God’s eternal glory in His Son will illumine the entire earth. “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (v. 30).

Second, because man in his pride fails to honor and glorify God as Creator, he also fails to give thanks to Him for His gracious provision. His unbelief is made still worse by his ingratitude. Although God is the source of every good thing that men possess-giving rain, sun, and other natural blessings to the just and unjust alike (see Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:15–17)-the natural man fails to thank Him because he fails even to acknowledge His existence.

Third, as a consequence of their failing to honor and thank God, fallen men have become futile in their speculations. To reject God is to reject the greatest reality in the universe, the reality which gives the only true meaning, purpose, and understanding to everything else. Refusing to recognize God and to have His truth guide their minds, sinful men are doomed to futile quests for wisdom through various human speculations that lead only to falsehood and therefore to still greater unbelief and wickedness. The term speculation embraces all man’s God-less reasonings.

To forsake God is to exchange truth for falsehood, meaning for hopelessness, and satisfaction for emptiness. But an empty mind and soul is like a vacuum. It will not long remain empty but will draw in falsehood and darkness to replace the truth and light it has rejected. The history of fallen mankind is devolutionary, not evolutionary. The foolish heart that rejects and dishonors God does not become enlightened and freed, as sophisticated unbelievers like to claim, but rather becomes spiritually darkened and further enslaved to sin. The person who forsakes God forsakes truth, light, and eternal life, as well as meaning, purpose, and happiness. He also forsakes the foundation and motivation for moral righteousness.

Spiritual darkness and moral perversity are inseparable. When man forfeits God, he forfeits virtue. The God-less philosophy of the world inescapably leads to moral perversion, because unbelief and immorality are inextricably intertwined. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception,” Paul warned the Colossians, “according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

When the incarnation of truth and light came into the world, unbelieving mankind would not have Him. Because Jesus was the light of the world, they rejected Him, because their deeds were evil and they loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19–20). For the very reason that Jesus spoke the truth, they would not believe Him (John 8:45). That is the legacy of man’s refusal to glorify God.[1]

 


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 69–86). Chicago: Moody Press.

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