Knowing God but Rejecting Him – Romans 1:18-23
By: Alistair Brown
I will always be grateful to John for some very bold words he spoke to me late one night when I was seventeen. John, Neal, and I were sharing a room at a conference. None of us were tired, so late at night we got talking.
Maybe because the room was in complete darkness, and none of us could see each other, the conversation went deep and personal. “Does anyone believe in God?” asked Neal.
I wanted to say ‘yes’, but I had never made any decision about Christ and other things I’d discussed with these friends were very far from Christian. Then – into the darkness – I heard myself say, “I do. I believe in God.” More silence.
Then John spoke very directly. “Alistair, I can respect you for believing in God, but I can’t respect that you believe in God and do nothing about it.”
That sentence went right through me. It showed the unpleasant truth that I knew God, but I was living as if I didn’t. It was more than another year before that changed.
Paul – writing to the Romans – has just said God’s salvation is for every Jew and every Gentile through the gospel, a gospel open to all who come by faith.
But what about those who don’t come? What about those who know God but live as if they didn’t? Paul now turns to their situation.
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
In these verses Paul makes clear three truths:
1. What can be known about God is plain to see.
Paul’s words, for all people everywhere, are straightforward: “…what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (v. 19).
Paul is not saying that every last truth about God and the gospel is immediately obvious. But he is saying there is sufficient evidence of God – his existence and his character – for all to know him. He goes on: “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 people are without excuse” (v. 20).
God’s existence and his nature are no secret. He has not hidden himself.
What Paul is saying is what theologians usually call ‘natural revelation,’ evidence of God from everything around us that shows there must be a loving and generous creator. ‘Special revelation’ is the term used for particular ways in which God has deepened our understanding of him, such as words spoken by the prophets, or miracles God has done, or the coming of his Son into the world, and the whole range of truths taught us in the Scriptures.
From medieval times philosophers and theologians argued whether what can be seen in nature amounts to proof of God. The illustration which has been used for years is to look at a watch, mostly likely of the old kind with cogs and wheels, and ask: “Could such an intricate and clever construction have come about by accident?” The obvious answer is “No, there must have been a watchmaker.” So – as we look at the wonders of this world, and the intricacies of the human mind and body – can this really be an accident? Can this really be random? Has no hand shaped all this?
Our answer will be that the world as we know it shouts to us that there is a God. Others will say science has alternative explanations, or that the evidence we see does not amount to a ‘proof.’
Paul is neither discussing science nor arguing philosophy. He is saying very simply: ‘The world could not exist and could not be this amazing place without God. God cannot be seen, and yet he is seen in the things he has made. God is plainly known to all people.’
I drove home late one night across the hills of the north of Scotland. Most of the time I was nowhere near any villages or towns. I caught a glimpse of the sky, and – in the middle of nowhere – I stopped my car, turned off the lights and stepped out. The heavens were filled with white fire. The air was clear. No light spilled over from any town. And the sky was alive with brilliance. From my extreme right to extreme left – all over the sky – stars blazed gorgeously bright light.
I stood enraptured for a long time. I had never seen anything so amazing, and my heart soared in wonder at God’s handiwork and with excitement that a God who could make this would care for me.
Something of that experience and that reaction is what Paul describes. God is plainly to be seen and known through the things he has made.
2. But people reject God and choose their own way.
Paul says people “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18) and “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (v. 21).
And, in these and the next two verses, Paul describes the dangerous and damaging way people go with their lives.
- They make a choice against God. It is not that people know nothing about God. They know plenty. Any ignorance is deliberate ignorance, like someone refusing to watch a documentary on world hunger in case they were persuaded to give. The people who don’t know God don’t lack information. They lack the will to face what truly knowing God must mean for their lives.
- They make a choice with consequences. Paul lists three: a) their thinking becomes futile; b) their hearts are darkened; c) their decisions become foolish (vs. 21-22). They know there is a power greater than themselves, but instead of worshiping God they shape idols out of wood or stone and bow down to images made to look like humans, animals or birds (v. 23).
Idolatry – worshiping things made by human beings rather than the Maker of human beings and all creation – was to be seen in every street and most households in the Roman world. Idol worship had also been part of Israel’s past, and brought great trouble to the nation. Paul sees it as both folly and rebellion, to exchange the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal creatures (v. 23). They know God but turn away and worship wood or stone shaped like creatures. How can anyone make such a choice?
That is still a real question.
In our day…
- How can people know that happiness does not come from wealth or power, yet sacrifice almost everything for more money or a higher position?
- How can people know that the greatest joy lies in being faithful to husband or wife, yet fall into the arms of someone else?
- How can people know that their well being lies in guarding their health with diet and fitness, but eat the worst of foods and avoid exercise at all costs?
When thinking becomes futile, and hearts are darkened, choices become foolish. No one has an excuse. We are not ignorant about what is right, but we are arrogant. We think we know best. We want what we want, not what God or anyone else tells us is right.
People reject God and choose their own way.
3. And now they experience God’s wrath.
Paul says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness…” (v. 18).
God does not ignore rebellion and sin. He responds.
I confess, the other day I found I had killed a plant growing in a small pot. My wife was away for a time to visit family, and I was left in charge of the Penstemon Calycosus. All I had to do was water it. Not difficult. Not stressful. Not time consuming. But I was out and about, busy, distracted. And neglectful. For several days, neglectful. The Penstemon Calycosus never protested about my neglect. It just died.
When I realized my foolishness, I repented and tried every resuscitation measure I knew. But to no avail. Penstemon Calycosus will never bloom as intended, for it is now a small crumbling mass of shriveled, brown leaves.
There are things which just wither away if ignored. But not God. God cannot be ignored, nor will God ignore evil. He is good and gracious, but that very goodness of God means he cannot but react to wrongdoing. If God pretended evil was not there, or chose to work round it, or shied away from dealing with it, God would be neither good nor great.
God is both good and great, and so his wrath falls on all who set their hearts and minds against him.
This is not irrational anger. This is not annoyance which has grown large and become out of control rage.
I watched a top level rugby match where one player jumped up at his opponent, got his shoulder right under the other man’s head and almost broke his neck. The offending player was given a red card and sent off the field of play. The TV commentators were amazed he had committed such a foul. “Wholly out of character,” they said. But the ‘red mist’ had come down and he’d snapped in a violent and reckless way.
That’s how we think of wrath. But that is not God’s wrath. God is no victim of wild emotions or a lust for revenge.
Rather, God is like the coach who tells his players that on his team there will be no slacking, no bad language, no blaming each other, no missing practice and one hundred per cent commitment during every game. That is how his team will be. So when there is backbiting between players, or someone puts in no effort in training, there is no surprise when the coach deals with it. He hasn’t lost his temper. He isn’t picking on anyone. There was a moral code, known to everyone, and the coach is dealing with the consequences of breaking that code.
On a much superior level, that is how Paul thinks about the wrath of God. What is known about God is plain – his “eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20) – so when people rebel and go their own way they cannot be surprised when they are met with the resolute face of God against evil. He is a holy God, and no man or woman is entitled to turn his world into an unholy place.
So, Paul writes, God sets himself against “godlessness and wickedness” (v. 18). His wrath “is being revealed.” Paul uses a present tense. There is a great day of reckoning in the future, but in part it is happening already. Therefore God’s wrath is to be taken seriously.
When I was in trouble with my mom or dad as a child, and they were angry with me, I’d be quiet and good until their mood changed, and then I could get back to my mischievous ways.
That is not an option with God. God is not in a bad mood about godlessness. He is righteous, so when people reject him and go their own way they encounter his wrath for a holy God cannot ignore unholy living. He never will. Action against God will always get that response. No matter how long we wait, that will never change.
All those years ago, my friend John said: “Alistair, I can respect you for believing in God, but I can’t respect that you believe in God and do nothing about it.”
That night John’s words sank deep into me. You cannot say something is true and live as if it is not.
The truth about God is plain to see, and we cannot live as if it is not.