Romans 1:19-20 Commentary Series

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 sun’s 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 willfully 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).[1]


Natural Revelation

Romans 1:18–20

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

No one likes to talk about the wrath of God, particularly if it is thought of in relation to ourselves. But if we have to think about it, as our study of Romans 1:18–20 obviously forces us to do, we find ourselves reacting generally in one of two ways. Either (1) we argue that wrath is somehow unworthy of God, a blotch on his character, and therefore a mistaken notion that should be abandoned at once by all right-thinking people; or (2) we reply by denying that we merit God’s wrath, that we do not deserve it.

The second reaction is the more serious of the two. So it is the one Paul tackles in the development of his argument for the need we all have of the Christian gospel.

Romans 1:18–20 contains three important concepts, which together explain why the wrath of God against men and women is justified. The first is wrath itself. It is being revealed from heaven against the ungodly, Paul says. The second is the suppression of the truth about God by human beings, a point picked up and developed more fully in verses 21–23. The third idea is God’s prior revelation of himself to those very people who suppress the truth about him. These concepts need to be studied in inverse order, however. For when they are considered in that order—revelation, suppression, and wrath—they teach that God has given a revelation of himself in nature sufficient to lead any right-thinking man or woman to seek him out and worship him, but that, instead of doing this, people suppress this revelation. They deny it so they do not have to follow where it leads them. It is because of this willful and immoral suppression of the truth about God by human beings that the wrath of God comes upon them.

Revelation of God in Nature

There has been so much debate about what theologians call “natural revelation” that it is important to begin a discussion of this subject with some important definitions and distinctions. First, a definition: natural revelation means what it sounds like, namely, the revelation of God in nature. It is sometimes called “general revelation,” because it is available to everybody. Natural revelation is distinguished from “special revelation,” which goes beyond it and is the kind of revelation we find in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the revelation of the Bible’s meaning to the minds of those who read it by the Holy Spirit.

When Paul talks about a knowledge of God made plain to human beings, as he does in this text, it is the general or natural revelation, not a specific scriptural revelation, that he has in mind.

The second concept that needs to be defined here is “knowledge of God.” This is necessary because we can use the words know or knowledge in different ways.

  1. Awareness. To begin on the lowest level, when we say that we know something we can be saying only that we are aware of its existence. In this sense we can say that we know where somebody lives or that we know certain things are happening somewhere in the world. This is true knowledge, but it is not extensive knowledge. It is knowledge that affects us very little. It does not involve us personally.
  2. Knowing about. Knowing about something goes a step further, because knowledge in this sense may be detailed, extensive, and important. This is the kind of knowledge a physicist would have of physics or a doctor of medical facts. To come more to the point, a theologian can have knowledge about God, a theology by which he might be called a very learned man—and still not be saved.
  3. Experience. The word know can also be used to refer to knowledge acquired by experience. To go back to the two previous categories, we could have this kind of knowledge of where a person lives if, for example, we had actually lived in his or her home ourselves. Again, a doctor could have knowledge like this if he were actually to experience the diseases he treats or undergo the operations he performs. Knowledge of a disease by having it is obviously quite different from merely having read of its causes and symptoms and how to treat the ailment.
  4. Personal. The last kind of knowledge is the highest and most important level. It is what we would call personal knowledge, the kind of knowing we can only have of God, of ourselves, or of another human being. When the Bible speaks of knowing God in a saving way, this is what it has in mind. It involves the knowledge of ourselves in our sin and of God in his holiness and grace. It involves the knowledge of what he has done for us in Christ for our salvation and an actual coming to know and love God through knowing Jesus Christ. It involves head knowledge, but it also involves heart knowledge. It expresses itself in piety, worship, and devotion. It is what Jesus was speaking of when he prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Some people grow impatient with definitions of this sort and wish that the teachers making them would just get on with explaining the Bible. But distinctions are necessary in this case, since they alone isolate the particular kind of knowledge of God available to men and women in nature for which God holds them accountable.

In the context of our text, this is not knowledge in the last of the four senses mentioned; if it were, all persons would be saved. Nor is it even (except in a very limited sense) knowledge about God or knowledge by experience. It is basically awareness. Nature reveals God is such a way that, even without the special revelation of God that we have in the Bible, all men and women are at least aware that God exists and that they should worship him. This awareness of God will not save them. But it is sufficient to condemn them if they fail to follow nature’s leading, as they could and should do, and seek out the true God so revealed.

Eternal Power and Divine Nature

The apostle is precise here as he explains what the natural revelation involves. It consists of two elements: first, “God’s eternal power” and, second, God’s “divine nature” (v. 20). The second means quite simply that there is a God. In other words, people have no excuse for being atheists. The first means that the God, whom they know to exist, is all-powerful. People know this by definition, since a god who is not all-powerful is not really God. We can express these two ideas philosophically by the term “Supreme Being.” “Being” (with a capital “B”) refers to God’s existence. “Supreme” denotes his ultimate power. What Paul is saying is that nature contains ample and entirely convincing evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being. God exists, and we know it. That is his argument. Therefore, when people subsequently refuse to acknowledge and worship God (as we do), the problem is not in God or in a lack of evidence for his existence but in our own irrational and resolute determination not to know him.

I need to add several more important things at this point, and the first concerns the extensiveness of this nevertheless incomplete revelation. I have pointed out that the revelation of God in nature is the limited disclosure of God’s existence and supreme power. There is no revelation of his mercy, holiness, grace, love, or the many other things necessary for us to learn if we are to know God savingly. Still, we are not to think of this limited revelation as minimal, as if somehow its limited quality alone can excuse us. According to the Bible, this natural revelation of God, though limited, is nevertheless extensive and overwhelming in its force.

In the Old Testament the great counterpart to Romans 1:18–20 is the first half of Psalm 19 (vv. 1–6). It speaks of the revelation of God in the heavens:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language

where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,

which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,

like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens

and makes its circuit to the other;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

In these verses it is the “glory” or majesty of God that is said to be revealed in nature. But the emphasis here is on the universal nature of the revelation rather than on its content. It is heard in every human “speech” and “language.” It is known in “all the earth” and “to the ends of the world.”

Another classic Old Testament passage about natural revelation is the interrogation of Job recorded in chapters 38 and 39 of that book. God is the interrogator, and his point is that Job is far too ignorant even to question God or presume to evaluate his ways. In the context of that negative argument—“See how little you know”—God unfolds an overwhelming list of evidences for his wisdom, power, and great glory, which Job (like all people everywhere) should know and before which he should marvel:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it?

On what were its footings set,

or who laid its cornerstone—

while the morning stars sang together

and all the angels shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors

when it burst forth from the womb,

when I made the clouds its garment

and wrapped it in thick darkness,

when I fixed limits for it

and set its doors and bars in place,

when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;

here is where your proud waves halt’?”

Job 38:4–11

God’s interrogation of Job goes on in that fashion for two chapters. Then, after Job responds by a confession of his own ignorance, God launches into the same type of questioning for one chapter more. These chapters stress that God is all-powerful and all-wise, and the evidence they present for these divine attributes is nature.

Kindness in Nature

There may be one other matter to be mentioned, though I must be careful not to claim too much for it here. When Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra in Lycaonia on their first missionary journey, the people wanted to worship them because they thought they were gods as a result of a miracle they did. Paul rebuked their error and began to teach them better, in one place speaking of God’s revelation of himself in nature in these words: “God … made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:15b–17).

If these words are to be taken at their face value—and why should we not take them that way?—they say that God has also revealed his kindness in nature. Theologians call this common grace. Instead of sending us all to hell at this instant, as he has every right to do, God takes care of us in a common, general way so that most of us have food to eat, clothes to wear, and places to live. True, the evidence for common grace is not unambiguous. There are bad things in this world, too: hurricanes, terrible diseases, and so on. But generally the world is a reasonably pleasant place. So it is not only God’s glory, power, and wisdom that we see in nature, according to the Bible. We see God’s goodness or kindness as well, and this attribute especially increases our guilt when we refuse to seek God so that we may thank and worship him.

Awareness Within

The second idea I need to add here is that God’s revelation of himself in nature does not stop with the external evidence for his existence, power, wisdom, and kindness—the attributes I have mentioned—but it has what can be called an internal or subjective element as well. That is, not only has God given evidence for his existence; he has also given us the capacity to comprehend or receive it—though we refuse to do so. The text says, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them,” and “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (vv. 19–20, italics mine).

Charles Hodge writes of these verses, “It is not of a mere external revelation of which the apostle is speaking, but of that evidence of the being and perfections of God which every man has in the constitution of his own nature, and in virtue of which he is competent to apprehend the manifestation of God in his works.”

John Calvin says that we are “blind” to God’s revelation but “not so blind that we can plead ignorance without being convicted of perversity.”

Let me use an illustration. Suppose you are driving down the street and come to a sign that says, “Detour—Turn Left.” But you ignore this and drive on. It happens that there is a police officer present, who stops you and begins to write out a ticket. What excuse might you have? You might argue that you didn’t see the sign. But that would carry very little weight if the sign was well placed and in bright colors. Besides, it makes no difference. As long as you are driving the car, the responsibility for seeing the sign and obeying it is yours. What is more, you are accountable if, having ignored the sign, you recklessly race on and either harm yourself and your passengers or destroy property.

Paul’s teaching fits this illustration. He is saying, first, that there is a sign. It is God’s revelation of himself in nature. Second, you have “vision.” Although blind to much, you can nevertheless see the revelation. Therefore, if you choose to ignore it, as we all do apart from the grace of God, the disaster that follows is your own fault. Your feelings of guilt are well founded.

Let me try this again. Paul is not saying that there is enough evidence about God in nature so that the scientist, who carefully probes nature’s mysteries, can be aware of him. (Carl Sagan has done this as well as anybody, but he acknowledges no Supreme Being.) Paul is not saying that the sign is there but hidden, that we are only able to find it if we look carefully. He is saying that the sign is plain. It is a billboard. In fact, it is a world of billboards. No one, no matter how weak-minded or insignificant, can be excused for missing it.

There is enough evidence of God in a flower to lead a child as well as a scientist to worship him. There is sufficient evidence in a tree, a pebble, a grain of sand, a fingerprint, to make us glorify God and thank him. This is the way to true knowledge. But people will not do this. They reject the revelation, substitute nature itself or parts of nature for God, and thereby find their hearts increasingly darkened.

John Calvin gives this just conclusion: “But although we lack the natural ability to mount up unto the pure and clear knowledge of God, all excuse is cut off because the fault of dullness is within us. And, indeed, we are not allowed thus to pretend ignorance without our conscience itself always convicting us of both baseness and ingratitude.”

Suppressing the Truth

When Calvin speaks of baseness and ingratitude, he brings us to the second point of Paul’s argument in this section of Romans, the point that justifies and leads to God’s wrath. We have already been talking about this. It is human rejection of the revelation God has given.

Paul’s description of what people have done in regard to natural revelation is in the phrase “who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). In Greek the word translated “suppress” is katechein, which means “take,” “hold,” “hold fast,” “hold back,” “keep,” “restrain,” or “repress.” In a positive sense the word can be used to mean holding to something that is good, as when Paul speaks of holding on to the word of life (cf. Phil. 2:16). In a negative sense it means wrongly to suppress something or hold it down. This is the way Paul is using it here. Thus, the newer translations of the Bible speak in Romans 1:18 of those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (nasb), “keep truth imprisoned in their wickedness” (Jerusalem Bible) or “stifle” truth (neb). Why do we do this? It is because of our wickedness, because we prefer sin to that to which the revelation of God would take us.

This leads to the matter we are going to study in the next chapter, what R. C. Sproul has called “the psychology of atheism.” It leads to an explanation of why natural revelation by itself does not work, in the sense of actually bringing us to God.

But before we turn to that topic, I need to say that if, as Paul maintains, the revelation of God in nature is fully adequate to condemn people who do not allow it to bring them to worship and serve this true God, how much more terrible and awful is the case of the vast numbers of people, particularly in our country, who have not only the natural revelation to lead them to God but also have the Bible and the proclamation of its truths in virtually every town and hamlet of our land and (by means of radio and television) at almost any hour. “Without excuse”? The people of Rome were without excuse, and they had nothing but nature. No Bible! No churches! No preachers! What about us who have everything? If we reject what God tells us, we are a thousand times more guilty.

No excuse! “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).

The Psychology of Atheism

Romans 1:18–20

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

In 1974 theologian R. C. Sproul produced a book from which I have drawn the title of this study: The Psychology of Atheism. Sproul’s book (later reissued as If There Is a God, Why Are There Atheists?) is an attempt to understand why people reject God either philosophically, becoming philosophical atheists, or practically, becoming practical atheists. (Practical atheists may say that they believe in God, but they “act as if” God does not exist.) Sproul’s answer is that atheism has nothing to do with man’s supposed ignorance of God—since all people know God, according to Romans 1—but rather with mankind’s dislike of him. People do not “know” God, because they do not want to know him.

Sproul writes:

The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural antipathy to the being of God. In a word, the nature of God (at least the Christian God) is repugnant to man and is not the focus of desire or wish projection. Man’s desire is not that Yahweh exists, but that he doesn’t.

The Sovereign God

But why are people so determined to reject God? Up to this point we have looked at three great ideas in our study of Romans 1:18–20: (1) the wrath of God, which is directed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men; (2) the suppression by human beings of the truth about God revealed in nature; and (3) the prior revelation of God’s eternal power and divine nature through what God has made. But we have seen that the historical sequence of these ideas is the reverse of the above listing. First, God has revealed himself. Second, people have rejected the truth thus revealed. Third, the wrath of God is released upon them because of this rejection.

Still, the question remains: Why do so-called rational beings react in what is clearly such an irrational manner? If the truth about God is as plainly understood as Romans 1:18–20 maintains it is, why should anyone suppress it? The answer, of course, is what I began to talk about in the previous chapter and am now to carry further in terms of Sproul’s thesis. Men and women reject God because they do not like him. They may like a god of their own imagining, a god like themselves, and therefore say that they like God. But the truth is that they do not like the God who really is.

Paul’s words for this universal dislike of God are “godlessness” and “wickedness” (v. 18). “Godlessness” means that people are opposed to God. They are not like God and do not like him. “Wickedness” refers to what people do because of this determined opposition. They reject the truth about God, thereby trying to force God away.

What is it that people do not like about God? The answer is, nearly everything. Let me show this by a look at some of the most important of God’s attributes.

The first thing men and women dislike about God is his sovereignty, his most basic attribute. For if God is not sovereign, God is not God. Sovereignty refers to rule; in the case of God, it refers to the Being who is ruler over all. Sovereignty is what David was speaking about in his great prayer recorded in 1 Chronicles 29:10–13.

Praise be to you, O Lord,

God of our father Israel,

from everlasting to everlasting.

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power

and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,

for everything in heaven and earth is yours.

Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom;

you are exalted as head over all.

Wealth and honor come from you;

you are the ruler of all things.

In your hands are strength and power

to exalt and give strength to all.

Now, our God, we give you thanks,

and praise your glorious name.

God shows his sovereignty over the material order by creating it and ruling it according to his own fixed laws. Sometimes he shows his sovereignty by miracles. God shows his sovereignty over the human will and therefore also over human actions by controlling them. Thus, he hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh refuses to let the people of Israel leave Egypt; and then God judges him. In a contrary way, God melts the hearts of some individuals and draws them to Jesus.

But why should the sovereignty of God be so objectionable to human beings? If we look at matters superficially, we might think that all people would quite naturally welcome God’s sovereignty. “After all,” we might argue, “what could be better than knowing that everything in the world is really under control in spite of appearances and that God is going to work all things out eventually?” But it is only when we look at externalities that we can think like that. When we peer below the surface we discover that we are all in rebellion against God because of our desire for autonomy.

This was Adam’s problem. It was the root sin. God had told Adam that he was to be as free as any creature in the universe could be. Adam was to rule the world for God. Moreover, he was free to go where he wished and do as he wished. He could eat whatever he wished, with one condition: As a symbol of the fact that he was not autonomous, that he was still God’s creature and owed his life, health, fortune, and ultimate allegiance to God, Adam was forbidden to eat of a tree that stood in the midst of the Garden of Eden. He could eat of all the trees north of that tree, all the trees east of that tree, all the trees south of that tree, all the trees west of that tree. But the fruit of that one tree was forbidden to him, upon penalty of death. “When you eat of it you will surely die,” was God’s warning.

Nothing could have been more irrational than for Adam to eat of that tree. God had never lied to him, so he could believe God. Moreover, Adam owed God utter and unquestioning obedience in this and every other matter. Besides, he had been warned that if he ate he would die. There was nothing to be gained from eating! There was everything to lose! Still, as Adam looked at the tree it was a great offense to him. The tree stood for a limitation on his personal desires. It represented something he was not allowed to do. So Adam said in effect, “That tree is an offense to my autonomy. I do not care if I can eat of all the trees north of here, east of here, south of here, and west of here. As long as I allow that tree to remain untouched, I feel less than human. I feel diminished. Therefore, I am going to eat of it and die, whatever that may mean.”

So Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and death, the punishment for sin, came upon the race.

That is the condition of every human heart. We hate God’s sovereignty because we want to be sovereign ourselves. We want to run our own lives. We want to roam free, to know no boundaries. When we discover that there are boundaries, we hate God for the discovery.

We react like the rulers of the nations in Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters’ ” (vv. 2–3).

We say, “We will not have this God to rule over us.”

The Holy God

It is not only the sovereignty of God that is repugnant to us in our natural, sinful state, however. We oppose God for his holiness as well. One reason is obvious: We hate holiness because we are not holy. God’s holiness exposes our sin, and we do not like exposure. But there is more to it than that. Let me explain.

Holiness is one of the greatest of all God’s attributes, the only one that is properly repeated three times over in worship statements (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty …” [Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8]). We think of holiness as utter righteousness, that God does no wrong. But although holiness includes righteousness, holiness is much more than this and is not basically an ethical term at all. The basic idea of holiness is “separation.” For example, the Bible is called holy (the Holy Bible), not because it is without sin, though it is inerrant, but because it is set apart and different from all other books. Religious objects are holy because they have been set apart for worship. In reference to God, holiness is the attribute that sets him apart from his creation. It has at least four elements.

  1. Majesty. Majesty means “dignity,” “authority of sovereign power,” “stateliness” or “grandeur.” It is the characteristic of strong rulers and of God, who is ruler over all. Majesty links holiness to sovereignty.
  2. Will. A second element in holiness is will, the will of a sovereign personality. This makes holiness personal and active, rather than abstract and passive. Moreover, if we ask what the will of God is primarily set on, the answer is on proclaiming himself as the “Wholly Other,” whose glory must not be diminished by the disobedience or arrogance of men. This element of holiness comes close to what the Bible is speaking of when it refers to God’s proper “jealousy” for his own honor. “Will” means that God is not indifferent to how men and women regard him.
  3. Wrath. Wrath is part of holiness because it is the natural and proper stance of the holy God against all that opposes him. It means that God takes the business of being God so seriously that he will permit no other to usurp his place.
  4. Righteousness. This is the matter mentioned earlier. It is involved in holiness not because it is the term by which holiness may most fully be understood but because it is what the holy God wills in moral areas.

Here is our problem. Precisely because holiness is not an abstract or passive concept, but is instead the active, dynamic character of God at work to punish rebellion and establish righteousness, the experience of confronting the holy God is profoundly threatening. Holiness intrigues us, as the unknown always does. We are drawn to it. But at the same time we are in danger of being undone, and we fear being undone, by the resulting confrontation. When Isaiah had his encounter with the holy God in the passage referred to above, he reacted in terror, crying, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 6:5).

When God revealed himself to Habakkuk, the prophet described the experience by saying, “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled …” (Hab. 3:16).

Job said, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

Peter exclaimed when he caught only a brief glimpse of Jesus’ holiness, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

The point I am making is this: If confrontation with the holy God is an unpleasant and threatening experience for the best of people—for the saints and prophets of biblical history, for example—how much more threatening must the holiness of God be for outright and unregenerate sinners. For them the experience must be totally overwhelming. No wonder they resist God, make light of him, or deny his existence. A. W. Tozer has written, “The moral shock suffered by us through our mighty break with the high will of heaven has left us all with a permanent trauma affecting every part of our nature.” Tozer is right. Therefore, the holiness of God as well as God’s sovereignty drive us from him.

The Omniscient God

In his study of atheism, Sproul has a particularly good chapter on God’s “omniscience.” This term means that God knows everything, including ourselves and everything about us. We do not like this, as Sproul indicates. He proves his point by looking at four modern treatments of the fear of being known, even by other human beings.

The first is by Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist. Sartre has analyzed the fear of being beneath the gaze of someone else in a number of places, but the best known is in his play No Exit. In this play four characters are confined in a room with nothing to do but talk to and stare at each other. It is a symbol of hell. In the last lines of the play this becomes quite clear as Garcin, one of the characters, stands at the mantelpiece, stroking a bronze bust. He says:

Yes, now’s the moment: I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. (He swings around abruptly.) What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. (Laughs.) So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!

The final stage directive says that the characters slump down onto their respective sofas, the laughter dies away, and they “gaze” at each other.

The second modern treatment of the fear of being known by others is from Julius Fast’s Body Language. This book is a study of nonverbal communication, how we express ourselves by various body positions, nods, winks, arm motions, and so forth. There is a discussion of staring, and the point is made that although it is allowable to stare at objects or animals, even for long periods of time, it is not acceptable to stare at human beings. If we do, we provoke embarrassment or hostility or both. Why? Because we associate staring with prying, and we do not want anybody prying into what we think or are.

The third modern study of the significance of the human fear of exposure is Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape. The naked ape is, of course, the human being, the only animal who has no hair or other covering.

The fourth person whose works Sproul studies is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote of a human need for hiddenness or solitude.

What emerges from these studies of modern attitudes toward exposure is a strange ambivalence. On the one hand, we want people to look at us, to notice us. If they ignore us, we feel diminished or hurt. At the same time, if they look too long or too intently, we are embarrassed and upset, because we are ashamed of who we are and do not want others to know us very well. If this is the case in our reaction to other human beings, who never really know us deeply even when they pry, and who are in any case sinners like ourselves, how much more traumatic is it to be known by the omniscient God, before whom all hearts are open, all desires known?

Exposure like this is intolerable. So human beings suppress their knowledge of God—because of his omniscience as well as because of his other attributes.

The Immutable God

At the very end of Sproul’s book there is a short “conclusion” in which the author tells how, after he had written the bulk of his study, he remembered a sermon by the great New England preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, entitled “Men [Are] Naturally God’s Enemies.” Sproul wondered how Edwards handled the subject he had been dealing with. So he hunted up the sermon and found Edwards saying that human beings hate God as “an infinitely holy, pure and righteous Being.” They hate him because his omniscience is a “holy omniscience” and his omnipotence is a “holy omnipotence.”5 So far, Edwards seemed to be making the same points Sproul was making.

Then Edwards said, “They do not like his immutability.”

Immutability? thought Sproul. Why immutability?

Immutability means that God does not change. But why should human beings dislike that about God? Edwards explained that it is “because by this he never will be otherwise than he is, an infinitely holy God.” As he thought about this, Sproul began to understand what the great theologian was saying. Men and women hate God for his immutability because it means that he will never be other than he is in all his other attributes.

If the time could come when God might cease to be sovereign, like a retiring chairman of the board, then his sovereignty would not seem particularly bad to us. We are eternal creatures. We could wait him out. When he retires, we could take over.

Again, the holiness of God would not be so offensive to us if the time might come when God would cease to be holy. What God forbids now he might someday condone. Tomorrow or next week or next month he might begin to think differently and change his mind. We could wait to do our sinning.

Omniscience? The time might come when God’s memory would begin to fail and he would forget bad things he knows about us. We could live with that.

But not if God is immutable! If God is immutable, not only is God sovereign today; God will be sovereign tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. God will always be sovereign. In the same way, not only is God holy today. God will always be holy. And not only is God omniscient today. God will always be omniscient. God will never change in any of these great attributes. He is the sovereign, holy, omniscient, and immutable God. He always will be, and there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it.

We may suppress the truth about God out of a wicked rejection of his sovereignty, saying, “We will not have this God to rule over us.” But whether we appreciate his rule or not, God’s sovereignty is precisely what we need. We need a God who is able to rule over our unruly passions, control our destructive instincts, and save us. We may hate God for his holiness. But hate him or not, we need a holy God. We need an upright standard, and we need one who will not cease from working with us until we attain it. We may hate God for his omniscience. But we need a God who knows us thoroughly, from top to bottom, and who loves us anyway. We need a God who knows what we need. We may hate God for his immutability, since he does not change in any of his other attributes. But we need a God we can count on.

Without Excuse

Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

No human being is infinite. Infinitude belongs exclusively to God. Yet, in spite of our finite nature, human beings do seem to have an almost infinite capacity for some things. One of them is for making excuses for reprehensible behavior. Accuse a person of something, and regardless of how obvious the fault may be, the individual immediately begins to make self-serving declarations: “It wasn’t my fault,” “Nobody told me,” “My intentions were good,” “You shouldn’t be so critical.” The two least spoken sentences in the English language are probably “I was wrong” and “I am sorry.”

Some people try to brazen things out by denying the need to make excuses. Walt Whitman once wrote, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” The French have a saying that has a similar intent: “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse” (”He who excuses himself, accuses himself”). But that is an excuse itself, since it means that the person involved is too great to need to make apologies.

Our text says that in spite of our almost infinite capacity to make excuses, we are all “without excuse” for our failure to seek out, worship, and thank the living God.

“I Didn’t Know God Existed”

The first of our excuses is that we do not know that God exists or at least that we do not know for sure. Every era has had its characteristic excuses for failure to seek and worship God, but in our “scientific age,” this is certainly a very common rationalization. We remember that when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned to earth from his short time in space, he said with typical atheistic arrogance, “I did not see God.” The fact that he could not see God was supposed to be proof of God’s nonexistence. Unfortunately, what Gagarin said is typical of many millions of people in our time, both in the communist East and the capitalistic West. It is the argument that science either has disproved God or else has been unable to give adequate evidence for affirming his existence.

It should be clear by this point, however, that if the Bible is from God, as Christians claim, then whatever we may think about the matter, God at least does not agree with our assessment.

We say, “There is no evidence for God.” Or, “There is insufficient evidence for God.”

God says that quite the contrary is the case. God says that nature supplies evidence that is not only extensive but is also “clearly seen” and fully “understood.” In other words, there is no excuse for atheism.

The alternative put forward today is that the universe is eternal because matter is eternal, and that all we see has come about over a long period of time as the result of chance or random occurrences. This is the view of Carl Sagan, who affirms the eternity of matter. “In the beginning was the cosmos,” cries Sagan. But think through the problems. Suppose everything we see did evolve over long periods of time from mere matter. Suppose our complex universe came from something less complex, and that less complex something from something still less complex. Suppose we push everything back until we come to “mere matter,” which is supposed to be eternal. Have we solved our problem? Not at all! We are trying to explain the complex forms of matter as we know them today, but where did those forms come from? Some would say that the form or purpose we see was somehow in matter to begin with. But, if that is the case, then the matter we are talking about is no longer “mere matter.” It already has purpose, organization, and form, and we need to ask how these very significant elements got there. At some point we must inevitably find ourselves looking for the Purposer, Organizer, or Former.

Moreover, it is not just form that confronts us. There are personalities in the cosmos. We are personalities. We are not mere matter, even complex matter. We have life, and we know ourselves to be entities possessing a sense of self-identity, feelings, and a will. Where could those things come from in an originally impersonal universe? Francis Schaeffer has written, “The assumption of an impersonal beginning can never adequately explain the personal beings we see around us, and when men try to explain man on the basis of an original impersonal, man soon disappears.”

Until recently, the most popular fallback from these truths has been the argument that whatever the difficulties may be for supposing an evolution of what we see from mere matter, such is nevertheless possible, given an infinite amount of time and chance occurrence. But there are two problems here.

First, what is chance? People talk as if chance were an entity that could bring about the universe. But chance is merely a mathematical abstraction with no real existence. Suppose you are about to flip a coin and were to ask, “What are the chances of its coming up heads?” The answer is fifty percent (ignoring the possibility that it may stick in the mud on its side). Suppose further that you do flip the coin and that it comes up heads. What made it come up heads? Did chance do it? Of course not. What made it come up heads was the force of your thumb on the coin, the weight of the coin, the resistance of the air, the distance from your hand to the ground, and other variables. If you knew and could plot every one of those variables, you would be able to tell exactly what would happen—whether the coin would land either heads or tails. You do not know the variables. So you say, “Chances are that it will come up heads fifty percent of the time.” But the point I am making is that chance didn’t do it. Chance is nothing. So to say that the universe was created by chance is to say that the universe was created by nothing, which is a meaningless statement.

What about there being an infinite amount of time? As I have pointed out, even with an infinite amount of time nothing with form or purpose comes into being apart from an original Former or Purposer. But supposing it could. Even this does not explain the universe, for the simple reason that the universe has not been around for an infinite amount of time. Science itself tells us that the universe is in the nature of fifteen to twenty billion years old. It speaks of an original beginning known popularly as the Big Bang. True, fifteen to twenty billion years is a long time, more time than we can adequately comprehend. But such time is not infinite! That is the point. And if it is not infinite, then an appeal to infinity does not explain the existence of our very complex universe.

“I didn’t know God existed”? Can anyone really affirm that in face of the evidence for the existence of God in nature? The Bible says we cannot, and even a secular analysis of the options supports the Bible’s statement. Ignorance is no excuse for failing to seek and worship God, because we are not ignorant.

“I Have Too Many Questions”

There are people who might follow what I have said to this point and even agree with most of it but who would nevertheless excuse themselves on the ground that they still have too many questions about Christianity. They recognize that the God we are talking about is not just “any god” but the God who has revealed himself in Scripture. And when they think about that they have a host of questions. They suppose that these are valid excuses for their rejection of the deity. For example:

  1. What about the poor innocent native in Africa who has never heard of Christ? Every preacher gets asked this question. In fact, it is probably the question most asked by Christians and non-Christians alike. But it is also true that Romans 1:18–20, the text we have been studying, answers it. The implication behind this question is that the “innocent” native is going to be sent to hell for failing to do something he has never had an opportunity to do, namely, believe on Jesus Christ as his Savior, and that a God who would be so unjust as to condemn the “innocent” native cannot be God. And that is true! God must be just, and God would be unjust if he condemned a person for failing to do what he or she obviously did not have the opportunity of doing.

But that is not the case in regard to the so-called innocent in Africa. To be sure, the native is innocent of failing to believe on Jesus if he or she has never heard of Jesus. But it is not for this that the native or anyone else who has not heard of Jesus is condemned. As Romans 1 tells us, the native is condemned for failing to do what he or she actually knows he or she should do, that is, seek out, worship, and give thanks to the God revealed in nature. Everyone falls short there. A person might argue that the native actually does seek God, offering in proof the widespread phenomenon of religion in the world. Man has rightly been called homo religiosus. But that is no excuse either, for the universality of religion, as Paul is going to show in the next verses, is actually evidence of man’s godlessness. Why? Because the religions that man creates are actually attempts to escape having to face the true God. We invent religion—not because we are seeking God, but because we are running away from him.

To repeat what we have seen in the last two studies: (1) all human beings know God as a result of God’s revelation of himself to us through nature, but (2) instead of allowing that revelation to lead us to God, we repress the revelation and instead set up false gods of our own imaginations to take the true God’s place. The reason, as we have also seen, is that (3) we do not like the God to which this natural revelation leads us.

  1. Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions? This is an excuse we also often hear, but it is as unsubstantial as the first one. We are told that as the data from science has come in, so many errors have been found in the Bible that no rational person could possibly believe that it is God’s true revelation. It follows that at best the Bible is a collection of insightful human writings, so no one can intelligently buy into Christianity on the basis of the biblical “revelation.”

The problem with this argument is its premise. It assumes that the accumulation of historical and scientific facts has uncovered an increasing number of textual and other problems, but actually the opposite is the case. As the data has come in over the decades, particularly over the last few decades, the tendency is for the Bible to be vindicated. Time magazine recognized this in a cover story in the December 30, 1974, issue. The story was captioned “How True Is the Bible?” In this essay the magazine’s editors examined the chief radical critics of the recent past—Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, and others—but concluded:

The breadth, sophistication and diversity of all this biblical investigation are impressive, but it begs a question: Has it made the Bible more credible or less? Literalists who feel the ground move when a verse is challenged would have to say that credibility has suffered. Doubt has been sown, faith is in jeopardy. But believers who expect something else from the Bible may well conclude that its credibility has been enhanced. After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived—and is perhaps the better for the siege.

Even on the critics’ own terms—historical fact—the scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack.

It is hard to see how anyone can use the alleged “contradictions” in the Bible to justify a failure to seek out and worship the Bible’s God, especially after he or she has investigated the evidence thoroughly.

  1. If there is a God and the God who exists is a good God, why does he tolerate evil? The argument has two forms. One form is philosophical, asking how evil could have entered a world created and ruled by a benevolent God. The other is personal and practical, asking why things happen to me that I do not like or why God does not give me what I ask him for or do what I tell him in my prayers I want him to do.

The philosophical problem is difficult. If we ask how evil could originate in an originally perfect world, there is no one, so far as I know, who has ever answered that puzzle adequately. If God made all things good, including Adam and Eve, so that nothing within them naturally inclined toward evil in any way, then it is difficult (if not impossible) to see how Adam or Eve or any other perfect being could do evil. But I must point out that although Christians may not have an adequate explanation for the origin of evil (at least at this point in the history of theological thought), our difficulty here is at least only half as great as that of the unbeliever. For the unbeliever has the problem not only of explaining the origin of evil; he has the problem of explaining the origin of the good as well. In any case, our failure to understand how evil came about does not disprove its existence any more than it disproves the existence of God.

The second form of this problem is personal and practical. It is the form of the question that probably troubles most people: “Why does God tolerate evil, particularly in my life? Why do bad things happen to me? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers as I would like?”

Part of the answer to this problem is that if we got what we deserved, we would be suffering not merely the evils we now know but rather those eternal torments that are to be the lot of the unregenerate in hell. In other words, instead of saying, “Why do bad things happen to me?” we should be saying, “Why do good things happen to me?” All we deserve is evil. If our life has any good in it, that good (however minimal) should point us to the God from whom all good comes. That we do not follow that leading, but instead complain about God’s treatment, only increases our guilt. It shows us to be precisely what Paul declares we are in Romans 1:18: godless and wicked.

Let me illustrate how this works. After I had preached the sermon that is printed as chapter 16 of this volume (“The Psychology of Atheism”), I received an unsigned note in which someone objected to my comments about the natural man’s hatred of God’s sovereignty. He (or she) said, “Preach sermons to your congregation, not to the radio audience. Deal with the hard questions. The difficulty is not that I am not sovereign but that the sovereignty of God does not seem good. When the answers to my prayers seem to make no sense, what then am I to think of God? Deal with that one.”

The tone of this note was a bit insulting, as you can see. But the problem is not that it was insulting to me. The problem is that it was insulting to God. Moreover, it was itself a refutation of the point it was making. The questioner was saying that he or she had no difficulty with the concept of God’s sovereignty, only with what God does—if God exists. But, of course, what is that if not a challenge to God’s sovereignty? It is a way of saying, “God, I am not going to believe in you unless you come down from your lofty throne, stand here before little me and submit to my interrogation. I will not acknowledge you unless you explain yourself to me.” Could anything be more arrogant than that? To demand that God justify his ways to us? Or even to think that we could understand him if he did? Job was not challenging God’s sovereignty. He was only seeking understanding. But when God interrogated him, asking if he could explain how God created and sustains the universe, poor Job was reduced to near stammering. He said, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

It is interesting that the same week in which I got this note, demanding that God explain himself on our level before we believe on him, I got another letter that was quite different. This person described a particularly horrible week that he had just gone through. But then he said, “Seeing the situation in the light of God’s sovereignty made it possible for me to ask forgiveness for my anger and open my eyes to what God wants me to see, namely, that my life will frequently be ‘disordered,’ but he will never let it get out of control.” Do you see the difference?

Is it right to have questions about why God acts as he does? Of course! Who has not had them? It is right to believe and then seek understanding. But to use an inability to understand some things as an excuse for failing to respond to what we do know is that deliberate repression of the truth about which Paul was speaking in our text.

“I Didn’t Think It Was Important”

The weakest excuse that anyone can muster is the statement that “I just didn’t think it was important.” That is obviously faulty—if God exists and we are all destined to meet him and give an account of our actions some day. Nothing can be as important as getting the most basic of our relationships right: the relationship of ourselves to God. And yet, for one reason or another—perhaps just because the press of life’s many demands seems more important—we push this greatest of all issues aside.

How do you think that is going to sound when you appear before God at the last day?

“I didn’t think it was important”?

“I didn’t think you were important”?

“I didn’t think my repression of the truth about you mattered”?

A little later on in Romans, Paul tells what is going to happen in that last day. Men and women are going to appear before God with their excuses, but when they do, says Paul, “Every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world [will be] held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:20). Even in this day there are no valid excuses, as Paul declares in Romans 1:20. But in that day the excuses will not even be spoken, so obvious will it be that all human beings—from the smallest to the greatest—are guilty of godlessness.

Since today is not yet that final day, there is still time to turn from the arrogance that pits finite minds and sinful wills against God.

Do you remember Methuselah? He lived longer than any other man—969 years. His name means “When he is gone it shall come.” “It” was the great flood of God’s judgment. That flood destroyed the antediluvian world. But the reason I refer to Methuselah and his longevity is that he is a picture of God’s great patience with those who sin against him. During the early years of Methuselah’s life God sent a preacher named Enoch to turn the race from its sin. Enoch preached that judgment was coming: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14–15). After Enoch died, Noah continued the preaching. For the entire lifetime of Methuselah, all 969 years, the flood did not come. God was gracious, “patient … not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But, though patient, God was not indifferent to sin, and at last Methuselah died, and wrath did indeed come.

We live in a similar age today. Today is the day of God’s grace. But wrath is gathering. We see it about us like the rising waters of the flood. Do not wait to be overtaken by it. Do not make excuses. Admit that you are “without excuse” in God’s sight and quickly take refuge in the Savior.[2]


18. For revealed, &c. He reasons now by stating things of a contrary nature, and proves that there is no righteousness except what is conferred, or comes through the gospel; for he shows that without this all men are condemned: by it alone there is salvation to be found. And he brings, as the first proof of condemnation, the fact,—that though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of sacrilege, and of wicked and abominable ingratitude.

To some it seems that this is a main subject, and that Paul forms his discourse for the purpose of enforcing repentance; but I think that the discussion of the subject begins here, and that the principal point is stated in a former proposition; for Paul’s object was to teach us where salvation is to be found. He has already declared that we cannot obtain it except through the gospel: but as the flesh will not willingly humble itself so far as to assign the praise of salvation to the grace of God alone, Paul shows that the whole world is deserving of eternal death. It hence follows, that life is to be recovered in some other way, since we are all lost in ourselves. But the words, being well considered, will help us much to understand the meaning of the passage.

Some make a difference between impiety and unrighteousness, and think, that by the former word is meant the profanation of God’s worship, and by the latter, injustice towards men; but as the Apostle immediately refers this unrighteousness to the neglect of true religion, we shall explain both as referring to the same thing. And then, all the impiety of men is to be taken, by a figure in language, as meaning “the impiety of all men,” or, the impiety of which all men are guilty. But by these two words one thing is designated, and that is, ingratitude towards God; for we thereby offend in two ways: it is said to be ἀσέβεια, impiety, as it is a dishonouring of God; it is ἀδικία, unrighteousness, because man, by transferring to himself what belongs to God, unjustly deprives God of his glory. The word wrath, according to the usage of Scripture, speaking after the manner of men, means the vengeance of God; for God, in punishing, has, according to our notion, the appearance of one in wrath. It imports, therefore, no such emotion in God, but only has a reference to the perception and feeling of the sinner who is punished. Then he says that it is revealed from heaven; though the expression, from heaven, is taken by some in the sense of an adjective, as though he had said, “the wrath of the celestial God;” yet I think it more emphatical, when taken as having this import, “Wheresoever a man may look around him, he will find no salvation; for the wrath of God is poured out on the whole world, to the full extent of heaven.”

The truth of God means, the true knowledge of God; and to hold in that, is to suppress or to obscure it: hence they are charged as guilty of robbery.—What we render unjustly, is given literally by Paul, in unrighteousness, which means the same thing in Hebrew: but we have regard to perspicuity.

19. Inasmuch as what may be known of God, &c. He thus designates what it behoves us to know of God; and he means all that appertains to the setting forth of the glory of the Lord, or, which is the same thing, whatever ought to move and excite us to glorify God. And by this expression he intimates, that God in his greatness can by no means be fully comprehended by us, and that there are certain limits within which men ought to confine themselves, inasmuch as God accommodates to our small capacities what he testifies of himself. Insane then are all they who seek to know of themselves what God is: for the Spirit, the teacher of perfect wisdom, does not in vain invite our attention to what may be known, τὸ γνωστὸν; and by what means this is known, he immediately explains. And he said, in them rather than to them, for the sake of greater emphasis: for though the Apostle adopts everywhere Hebrew phrases, and ב, beth, is often redundant in that language, yet he seems here to have intended to indicate a manifestation, by which they might be so closely pressed, that they could not evade; for every one of us undoubtedly finds it to be engraven on his own heart. By saying, that God has made it manifest, he means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author himself.

20. Since his invisible things, &c. God is in himself invisible; but as his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge him, for they clearly set forth their Maker: and for this reason the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, that this world is a mirror, or the representation of invisible things. He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity;3 for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself. When we arrive at this point, the divinity becomes known to us, which cannot exist except accompanied with all the attributes of a God, since they are all included under that idea.

So that they are inexcusable. It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence—that men cannot allege any thing before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness. We conceive that there is a Deity; and then we conclude, that whoever he may be, he ought to be worshipped: but our reason here fails, because it cannot ascertain who or what sort of being God is. Hence the Apostle in Heb. 11:3, ascribes to faith the light by which man can gain real knowledge from the work of creation, and not without reason; for we are prevented by our blindness, so that we reach not to the end in view; we yet see so far, that we cannot pretend any excuse. Both these things are strikingly set forth by Paul in Acts 14:17, when he says, that the Lord in past times left the nations in their ignorance, and yet that he left them not without witness (ἁμάρτυρον,) since he gave them rain and fertility from heaven. But this knowledge of God, which avails only to take away excuse, differs greatly from that which brings salvation, which Christ mentions in John 17:3, and in which we are to glory, as Jeremiah teaches us, ch. 9:24.[3]


19–20 The creation bears clear witness to its Maker, and the evidence is “plain to them.” Here Paul enters into a discussion of what is usually designated as natural revelation in distinction from the special revelation that comes through the Scriptures. Four characteristics are noted. First, it is a clear and perceivable testimony, as the word “plain” implies. Second, from the use of “understood” (v. 20), the revelation does not stop with perception but is expected to include reflection, the drawing of conclusions about the Creator. Third, it is a constant testimony, maintained “since the creation of the world” (cf. Ac 14:17). Fourth, it is a limited testimony in that it reflects God in certain aspects only, namely, “his eternal power and divine nature.” One has to look elsewhere for the full expression of his love and grace, i.e., to the special revelation of Scripture and especially to the revelation of God in his Son (Jn 1:14). Natural revelation is sufficient to make humanity responsible: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5; cf. Ps 19:1–4; Isa 40:12–31). But such knowledge is not by itself sufficient to accomplish salvation. The element of power is common to the two spheres of nature (v. 20) and grace (v. 16). Acquaintance with it in the former area should have prepared people to expect it in the latter. But they have failed and are left “without excuse.”[4]


19  Verses 19–20 have two purposes. On the one hand, Paul justifies his assertion that people “suppress” the truth (v. 18b). On the other hand, he wants to show that people who sin and are correspondingly subject to God’s wrath are responsible for their situation. They are “without excuse” (v. 20b). He accomplishes both purposes by asserting that people have been given a knowledge of God: “for what can be known55 about God is manifest among them.” For Jews, as Paul will acknowledge later (2:18, 20), this knowledge of God comes above all through the law of Moses. Here, however, he is interested in the knowledge of God available to all people through the nature of the world itself. Therefore, what Paul says in the following verses, though not limited to Gentiles (since Jews, too, have knowledge of God through nature), has particular relevance to them.

The last clause of v. 19 explains “is manifest”: what can be known of God has been made visible because God has “made it known.” Only by an act of revelation from above—God “making it known”—can people understand God as he is.

20  The “for” introducing this verse shows that Paul continues the close chain of reasoning about the knowledge of God that he began in v. 19. He has asserted that what can be known of God is visible among people generally and that this is so only because God has acted to disclose himself. Now he explains how it is that God has made this disclosure. Two different connections among the main elements in the verse are possible: (1) “his invisible attributes … have been seen through the things he has made, being understood”; (2) “his invisible attributes … have been seen, being understood through the things he has made.”60 Probably the latter makes better sense because, on the former rendering, the word “being understood” is somewhat redundant. The subject of this complex clause, “his invisible attributes,”62 is further defined in the appositional addition, “his eternal power and his deity.” What is denoted is that God is powerful and that he possesses those properties normally associated with deity. These properties of God that cannot be “seen” (aorata) are “seen” (kathoratai)—an example of the literary device called oxymoron, in which a rhetorical effect is achieved by asserting something that is apparently contradictory. God in his essence is hidden from human sight, yet much of him and much about him can be seen through the things he has made. Paul is thinking primarily of the world as the product of God’s creation (see, e.g., Ps. 8), though the acts of God in history may also be included.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to “understand” something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19–20).

The last clause of v. 20, “so that they are without excuse,” states a key element in our interpretation of vv. 19–20. For Paul here makes clear that “natural revelation,” in and of itself, leads to a negative result. That Paul teaches the reality of a revelation of God in nature to all people, this text makes clear. But it is equally obvious that this revelation is universally rejected, as people turn from knowledge of God to gods of their own making (cf. vv. 22ff.). Why this is so, Paul will explain elsewhere (cf. Rom. 5:12–21). But it is vital if we are to understand Paul’s gospel and his urgency in preaching it to realize that natural revelation leads not to salvation but to the demonstration that God’s condemnation is just: people are “without excuse.” That verdict stands over the people we meet every day just as much as over the people Paul rubbed shoulders with in the first century, and our urgency in communicating the gospel should be as great as Paul’s.[5]


19 Verses 19–20 have two purposes. On the one hand, Paul justifies his assertion that people “suppress” the truth (v. 18b). On the other hand, he wants to show that people who sin and are correspondingly subject to God’s wrath are responsible for their situation. They are “without excuse” (v. 20b). He accomplishes both purposes by asserting that people have been given a knowledge of God: “for what can be known55 about God is manifest among them.” For Jews, as Paul will acknowledge later (2:18, 20), this knowledge of God comes above all through the law of Moses. Here, however, he is interested in the knowledge of God available to all people through the nature of the world itself. Therefore, what Paul says in the following verses, though not limited to Gentiles (since Jews, too, have knowledge of God through nature), has particular relevance to them.

The last clause of v. 19 explains “is manifest”: what can be known of God has been made visible because God has “made it known.” Only by an act of revelation from above—God “making it known”—can people understand God as he is.

20 The “for” (Gk. gar) introducing this verse shows that Paul continues the close chain of reasoning about the knowledge of God that he began in v. 19. He has asserted that what can be known of God is visible among people generally and that this is so only because God has acted to disclose himself. Now he explains how it is that God has made this disclosure. Two different connections among the main elements in the verse are possible: (1) “his invisible attributes … have been seen through the things he has made, being understood”; (2) “his invisible attributes … have been clearly seen … being understood through what he has made” (CSB and most versions). Probably the latter makes better sense because, on the former rendering, the word “being understood” is somewhat redundant.60 The subject of this complex clause, “his invisible attributes,” is further defined in the appositional addition, “his eternal power and his deity”: God is powerful and he possesses those properties normally associated with deity.62 These properties of God that cannot be “seen” (aorata) are “seen” (kathoratai)an example of the literary device called oxymoron, in which a rhetorical effect is achieved by asserting something that is apparently contradictory. God in his essence is hidden from human sight, yet much of him and much about him can be seen through the things he has made. Paul is thinking primarily of the world as the product of God’s creation (see, e.g., Ps. 19:1–6), though the acts of God in history may also be included.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to understand something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19–20).

The last clause of v. 20, “so that they are without excuse,” states a key element in our interpretation of vv. 19–20. For Paul here makes clear that natural revelation, in and of itself, leads to a negative result. This text asserts that God has revealed something of himself to all people in the world he has made. But it is equally obvious that this revelation is universally rejected, as people turn from knowledge of God to gods of their own making (vv. 21–23, 25). Why this is so, Paul will explain elsewhere (Rom. 5:12–21). But it is vital if we are to understand Paul’s gospel and his urgency in preaching it to realize that natural revelation leads not to salvation but to the demonstration that God’s condemnation is just: people are “without excuse.” That verdict stands over the people we meet every day just as much as over the people Paul rubbed shoulders with in the first century, and our urgency in communicating the gospel should be as great as Paul’s.[6]


1:19–21 / Verses 19–21 are critical for the argument because they assert that the problem of human guilt is not God’s hiddenness and therefore humanity’s ignorance, but rather God’s self-disclosure and humanity’s rejection of it. The Greek conjunction dioti (niv, since) at the beginning of verse 19 carries a causal force. Thus, men are without excuse. Twice (vv. 19, 21) Paul says that God can be known. Several commentators translate the Greek word gnōston (niv, known) as “knowable,” thus suggesting that even if humanity did not know God, it could have known God. “Knowable,” of course, also lessens humanity’s guilt. Paul, however, indicates that humanity did know at least something of God (see v. 21: they knew God), and his argument depends on its having known him. Moreover, in the Greek nt, gnōston normally means “known” as opposed to “knowable”; its root, in fact, means not knowledge about something, but knowledge of it by experience. Paul is therefore saying that all persons have experienced God … and could have experienced more. Creation bears God’s fingerprints, and through it humanity has experienced something of God’s wisdom, power, and generosity. The idea here echoes Paul’s Areopagus speech (Acts 17:27–28) that God is not far from his creatures.

A word may be in order at this point about natural theology. Is Paul saying that it was possible for humanity to know God apart from revelation in Jesus Christ? Again in 2:14 he seems to hint of a natural morality among the Gentiles who had never been taught the Mosaic law. These passages have been the subject of confusion, due in part to lack of definition of terms. As it was developed during the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “natural religion” meant the ability of unaided human reason to perceive and know God. But Paul is not exactly speaking of unaided human reason. His starting point is not humanity (as epitomized by natural theology), but God who makes himself known through creation. His topic is thus revelation, although revelation through nature and morality rather than through Jesus Christ, or revelation via creation as opposed to revelation via salvation history. Ultimately Paul is less interested in how the world knows God than that it has experienced God and is hence without excuse.

The guilt of humanity, then, is due not to want of truth, but to the suppression of the truth (v. 18). If guilt were due to ignorance it would be an intellectual problem, but in reality it is a problem of the will, which is sin. The fundamental problem of humanity was not, as the Greeks thought, a problem of reason, but a problem of the will (v. 27). The proper response would have been to glorify God and give thanks to him. But when humanity rejected what God had declared of himself in creation it became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (see also Eph. 4:17–18). Having denied God they denied themselves and nature. This became the first step in substituting a counterfeit for God, which is idolatry.

Loss of touch with reality leads to confusion, from which terrible ironies arise. The mystery of revelation consisted in a paradox: God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen. This sounds like an oxymoron, for how can something invisible be seen? Nevertheless, God has continued to make known his invisible attributes, both his power and deity, through the created order, and no one can claim ignorance of them. A conception of humanity groping to a higher understanding of God seems foreign to Paul. Knowledge of God begins with God: God has made it plain to them.

Again in verse 21 Paul employs the causal dioti (niv, for although) to summarize verses 19–20. Humanity’s knowledge and experience of God did not lead people, as it should have, to glorify God or give thanks to him, but to “futility,” “foolishness,” and “darkness” (v. 21). Paul broaches the idea that he will develop below, namely, that humanity substitutes a false god for the true God. According to the prophets this was the reason for the fall of both the Northern (2 Kings 17:15) and Southern (Jer. 2:5) Kingdoms. In an earlier epistle Paul spoke of the Gentiles as “slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8). Luther rightly spoke of the problem of imaginary gods. “How many there are even today who worship him not as if he were God but as if he were as they themselves imagine him for themselves!” (Lectures on Romans, p. 25). In a withering criticism of religious aspirations Feuerbach asserted that “god” is simply a projection of the human imagination. This is supremely illustrated by Milton’s Satan, who, seeing the Son of God at the Father’s right hand, suffered a “sense of injur’d merit,” and “thought himself impaired” (PL 1.98; 5.662). Plotting to usurp the Son’s position, Satan commits the folly of a creature revolting against its creator and becomes, in the words of C.S. Lewis, himself more a “Lie than a Liar, a personified self-contradiction” (Preface, ch. 13).[7]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 76–82). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 137–160). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 67–71). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 48). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 103–106). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 114–117). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[7] Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 50–52). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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