How Should We Understand Man/Part 2

By: Dr. Steve Sullivan; ©2001
Any time one approaches the subject of sin, wrath, judgment and hell, the most frequent questions arises about the “heathen which has never heard.” God would not judge someone who has never heard, would He? Dr. Sullivan explores that issue this month.

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Paul’s Anthropology from Romans 1-3 — Part 2
Romans 1:19-23

Introduction

Any time one approaches the subject of sin, wrath, judgment and hell, the most frequent question arises about the “heathen which has never heard.” God would not judge someone who has never heard, would He? How can God hold the person who has never heard the gospel responsible? Paul deals with this problem specifically in Romans 1:19-23.

In my last article we saw that God reveals his wrath against rebellious man because he suppresses the truth of God in unrighteousness (verse 18). The context indicates that Paul is at least referring to the truth of the knowledge of God as Creator and Judge. The reason for man suppressing the truth and God’s wrath being revealed is found in Romans 1:19-20

The Rebellious Man Rejects the Truth of God—Romans 1:19-20

“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.”

The word translated “because” in verse 19 gives us a hint that Paul is explaining and justifying the statement that men suppress the truth (verse 18). In verse 19 Paul boldly expresses that all men suppress this truth because God reveals it to everyone and it is man’s natural response to either actively or passively reject the truth. Notice the expression in verse 19 “evident in them” (or could be translated “evident among them”) and the phrase “made it evident to them” imply that this knowledge of God has entered into their mind and conscience. In other words, no man can legitimately say, “God did not make Himself known to me.” Paul is saying that men, no matter who they are and where they live among the world, suppress the truth about God. Paul says, “I know this because God has made His knowledge plain to everyone.”

Now what knowledge of God is Paul talking about? He explains in verse 20. Paul says that everyone should know something about God’s invisible character through His visible creation. Paul says God’s eternality and power is displayed in His creation. The word translated “Godhead” in the King James Version is better understood “divine nature” for it refers to the sum of all of God’s attributes. How many times have you heard nonbelievers marvel over something of God’s creation and explain that they believe in a “Supreme Being” or some kind of God? But they refuse to glorify God or give thanks because they are content to worship their own speculations of God in the form of man’s ideas or creation itself. David understood this general revelation in na­ture when he wrote in Psalm 19:1-6:

“The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterance to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.”

Scientists are constantly in awe of the universe and it consistently points them to a Creator but so many suppress the truth. I believe a classic illustration of this is the agnostic Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist. In 1978 he stated:

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 of 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.[1]

Here is a man who accepts the truth about the creation but still suppresses it be­cause he has not (as far as I know) submitted his life to God.

Whether you are a highly educated man or the ignorant tribesman in an untouched primitive land, Paul says that the knowledge of God through creation is evident to them. Therefore, no man will be able to stand before God and say “I didn’t know” because the revelation of God through nature will rise up and declare them guilty. This is why Paul says all men are without excuse. The rejection of God’s knowledge through his creation is enough to condemn him to hell.

What if someone responds to the knowledge in creation, is he saved? If he comes to the realization that he should not worship the river but the God who made the river, will he be saved? No. No one is saved unless they believe in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), but if they respond to God through the knowledge of creation, God will send the gospel to him. There have been numerous examples of this very thing as missionaries go out into the untouched fields of the world. This is what happened to Cornelius in Acts 10. He had responded to the light God had given him and God sent Peter to give him words by which he may be saved (Acts 11:13-14). In other words, the knowledge of God in creation is enough to condemn man but not enough to save him. However, if one responds to God, the pattern of the Scripture seems to indicate that he will receive the gospel (Acts 10: John 6:37).

Dr. Ryrie illustrates:

For instance, if you offered to give one dollar to a man whom you knew needed one hundred dollars and if he rejected your one dollar gift you would doubtless consider his refusal sufficient grounds for declining to give him further assistance. If on the other hand, the needy man accepted the one dollar gift gratefully, you might try to give more. The dollar would be insufficient to meet his need, but if refused it would be sufficient to condemn him.[2]

The dollar is like the knowledge of God in creation which is not able to save, but is able to condemn, if rejected. Therefore, the wrath of God is revealed because men, even the unreached man, suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness. Since this is the case, Scripture declares all men without excuse before God.

The Response of a Man Who Suppresses the Truth—Romans 1:21-23

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

So far Paul has told us the fact of the wrath of God against rebellious man (1:18). Then he has given us the reason for the wrath of God upon men who suppress the truth. Now in verses 21-23, we see the response of the man who suppresses the truth. In the first part of verse 21 we see that man willfully ignores God. They do not want to glorify God or give Him thanks. I believe this is the first sign of spiritual deadness. The chief end of man is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31) and to enjoy Him forever (Ps. 73:25- 26) and part of glorifying God is giving Him thanks. What do we mean “to glorify God”? The late Professor John Murray says, “It means simply to ascribe to God the glory that belongs to him as God, to give him in thought, affection and devotion the place that belongs to him in virtue of the perfections which the visible creation itself makes known.”[3] Man’s willful neglect of God brings God’s wrath.

The second response of a man who suppresses the truth is found in the latter part of verse 21 and verse 22. Here we see that man reasons against God. In verse 21 Paul uses the aorist tense with his verbs which suggests in this context that Paul is writing of a historical event and interpreting the story of man after the Fall.[4] Their minds were affected by sin so they became futile in their thinking. The word “heart” in Scripture is the seat of feeling, intellect and will. This passage tells us that men’s hearts are dark­ened which means their minds cannot reason straight; their emotions cannot function properly imparting peace and joy, and their wills do not even try to be in harmony with God’s law.[5] They profess to be wise, but they are fools.

Finally, men who suppress the truth totally replace God (verse 23). They replace the eternal, powerful God with men and their ideas. We call this wisdom today in higher learning. They also may begin to worship cows and snakes. Man turns to the creation instead of the Creator. Therefore, the wrath of God is revealed upon those who worship such things–who rebel against the knowledge of God.

Conclusion

Paul will give us three sources of the knowledge of God in Romans. In this article we see God’s knowledge in the general revelation of His creation. This knowledge cannot save someone, but its constant display throughout the universe leaves every person without excuse before God at the judgment. The second source of knowledge is the “work of the Law” of God on man’s conscience which is stated in Romans 2:15-16. This gives all men some sense of the will of God concerning what is right and wrong. However, because of the effects of man’s sin nature, his conscience cannot be a reli­able guide. It too cannot save sinners, but it is enough to condemn men. The third source is the divine revelation of the Scripture which gives us the gospel whereby men may be saved. If the wrath of God is revealed upon those who reject the knowledge of God in creation, how much more will it be revealed on those who hear the special revelation of God’s gospel and reject it! My friend, will you take heed and not reject the knowledge of God? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)

Notes:

  1. In the July 1980 issue of Reader’s Digest there is an article reprinted and condensed from the June 25, 1978 New York Times magazine by Robert Jastrow. It is titled, “Have Astronomers Found God?”
  2. Charles Ryrie, The Holy Spirit, p. 63.
  3. John Murray, NIC on Romans, Vol. I, p. 41.
  4. C.S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Bib. Sac. Vol. 129, No. 513, p. 72.
  5. William Hendricksen, New Testament Commentary, Romans Chapters 1-8, p. 72.

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