Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Knowledge of God, The Irrationality of Sin: Romans 1

The Knowledge of God

The Irrationality of Sin

Romans 1:18-32, “The Exchange”


Having studied the fall of man into sin, we go further into the effects of sin on the mind of man. From Genesis 3, we had hints that sin affected man’s wisdom, and in Romans 1, Paul gives us a theology concerning the status and thought processes of man’s mind. This moves us directly into our study of epistemology which will consist of the next two lessons.

Romans 1:18-32, “The Exchange”


Paul wrote to the Romans for a number of reasons. First, he was preparing them for his visit to Rome (1:13). Second, the Roman church had never received the direct teaching of an apostle before since it was founded by those evangelized by the apostles, and because of this, they needed to be taught the gospel in its fullness from one with Divine inspiration (1:15). Third, he explained the relationship between Jew and Gentile and how that relates to the constraints of the Mosaic laws (1:16).

Paul begins with one of his normal salutations, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus…,” and then recites what is likely an ancient Christian creed:

“…the gospel of God…concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 1:1, 3-4)

One can see the parallelism between v.3 and v.4:

“who was born” “who was declared”

a descendant of David” “the Son of God”

“according to the flesh” “according to the Spirit of holiness”,

“by the resurrection from the dead”

The point of this creed is that the Messiah, the son of David according to human nature, has come as a lowly and humble servant (Philippians 2:6-11, Hebrews 2:9), and because of His righteousness (Acts 2:24-36), he was raised from the dead in a glorified state and declared with power to be what He was from eternity1, the Son of God. This creed expresses the basis of the gospel, the triumph over death and sin, the fulfillment of righteousness, the uniting of a new humanity, and the inauguration of a new age.2

Paul proceeds with the implications of Christ’s resurrection: the gospel, “the power of God for salvation”, is to be preached in all the earth and to all men, whether Jew or Gentile, Greek or Barbarian (v.16). Then, Paul writes a verse with a very important phrase in his writings:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.’ ” (Romans 1:17)

Without going into the centuries-long debate on the meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God”, it shall suffice to say that, when all the uses of the phrase in the Bible are taken into account, it becomes clear that “the righteousness of God” is the righteousness that comes from God to man because of God’s nature as righteous.3 This, then, begins our section to be studied, the righteous wrath that comes from God against unbelief.


Verse 18

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” (Romans 1:18)

God’s wrath, i.e. the righteousness or justice which comes to sinful man from God, is universal, evident and for all to see (“revealed from heaven”), and is upon those who, because of their sinfulness, deny what they know to be true:

  • The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)4

  • “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

  • “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds…” (Colossians 1:21)

  • “But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 John 2:11)

  • (John 15:18-19, Romans 8:5-9, 2 Timothy 3:2-7, etc.)

The means of this suppression will be explained by Paul starting in verse 23.

Verses 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.” (Romans 1:19-20)

The truth mentioned in v.18 that men suppress in wickedness is the truth about God. This would include all of the divine perfections such as God’s omnipotence, eternality, creatorship, omnipresence, holiness, and even His righteous law (v.32). We should note, here, that this truth is within them and clearly evident to them because it is given by God. This knowledge is not the result of a long chain of philosophical argumentation, empirical testing, or mystical experience.5 Rather, this knowledge is immediate, being built into man as God’s image bearer living within God’s creation6, and as such, it is not just abstract knowledge but relational and personal knowledge of God.7 Being universal and of such a magnitude, this knowledge of God is such that no man can escape God’s judgment by claiming ignorance:

  • 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.” (Psalm 19:1-2)8

  • “In the generations gone by He 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 14:16-17)

Verses 21-22

“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…” (Romans 1:21-22)

Instead of reacting to this knowledge of God by honoring Him as He deserves, they pretended their own autonomy and invented worldviews which deny this knowledge of God. In order to invent their own worldviews, they had to deny the obvious, that which they personally knew to be true. Instead of repenting, they went into folly and insanity:

  • “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.” (Ecclesiastes 9:3)

  • Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.’” (John 8:34)

  • “So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.” (Ephesians 4:17-19)

  • “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach…” (Colossians 1:21-22)

  • For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.” (Titus 3:3)

  • “And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.’ The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory. Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 16:7-11)

As G.C. Berkouwer once said:

“For the riddle of sin is the same as the essence of sin, with its anti-normative character and illegality. It is the same as the senselessness of sin. Therefore, since every “unriddling” of sin implies a discovery of “sense” where no sense can possibly be found, the very notion of an “unriddling” is impossible. One cannot find sense in the senseless and meaning in the meaningless.”9

Verse 23

“…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.” (Romans 1:23)

Here, Paul elaborates on the means of the suppression, what he calls the ‘exchange’. Sinful humanity began to worship themselves and the very lowly creatures that God had created to be ruled over by man. By the list that Paul makes, he is probably making reference to the deities of the Egyptians who worshipped birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, and even the common household fly. Hinduism has gone far beyond degenerating to the point of worshipping human dung. Man exchanged the obvious and always present truth of the immutable God for that which he felt comfortable worshipping, the temporal creation. As Cornelius Van Til said, “In their gods the Greeks indirectly worshipped themselves.”10

Verses 24-25

“Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:24-25)

As a result of their ‘exchange’ God’s wrath mentioned in verse 18 came upon sinful man by giving them over to their darkened minds and allowing their futile imaginations to run amok. Therefore, they deceived themselves and worshipped everything they could think of that wasn’t God:

  • In the generations gone by He 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 14:16-17)

  • For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

  • For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.” (Revelation 17:17; cf. Rev. 20:10)

Verses 26-28

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,” (Romans 1:26-28)

Because of their suppression of the truth about God by means of the ‘exchange’, God brought His wrath upon them by further giving them over to self-destructive lifestyles.

  • For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM.’” (John 12:39-40; cf. Romans 11:7-10)

  • “What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; just as it is written, ‘GOD GAVE THEM A SPIRIT OF STUPOR, EYES TO SEE NOT AND EARS TO HEAR NOT, DOWN TO THIS VERY DAY.’ And David says, ‘LET THEIR TABLE BECOME A SNARE AND A TRAP, AND A STUMBLING BLOCK AND A RETRIBUTION TO THEM. LET THEIR EYES BE DARKENED TO SEE NOT, AND BEND THEIR BACKS FOREVER.’” (Romans 11:7-10)

  • “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” (Titus 1:15-16)

To compound this problem, God gave them over to the devil and his angels who enslaved their minds so that they would stay in bondage to their own grievous errors:

  • “Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved.” (Luke 8:12)

  • You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

  • “But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you…to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” (Acts 26:16, 18)

  • “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

  • “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)

  • “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

  • “The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

  • “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19)

  • “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Revelation 12:9)

Verses 29-32

“…being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:29-32)

In spite of their full knowledge of God and His universal law, man deceived himself by thinking that he possessed moral autonomy. The gentiles had the “work of the law written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness and their thoughts alternatively accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15). However, because they suppressed the truth, they never came to know God or his laws:

  • “He declares His words to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; And as for His ordinances, they have not known them. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 147:19-20)

  • “Gather yourselves and come; draw near together, you fugitives of the nations; they have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save.” (Isaiah 45:20)

  • You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)

  • “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)


All men know deeply and personally that the God of Scripture exists, that He is their Creator and Lord, and that He is owed and demands obedience from them. However, man, in his sinful nature, suppresses this truth and exchanges it for a lie. As Scott Oliphint notes:

“We should remember here that our idolatry stems not from ignorance, not from a futile attempt to fill a void in our lives. It results always from a perversion of the truth, a twisting of reality. It stems from denying the way things are and attempting to create a world of our own making. It is idolatry, therefore, that lies at the root of our sin, and thus at the root of our irrationality.”11

This means, first, that no man can claim that they do not know God. As made in the image of God, man is a God-knower, and thus, no one operates in a religious vacuum. No one is neutral in their belief and attitude toward God (Matthew 12:30). Secondly, however, man will always take any information given to him that shows the truth of God and twist it according to his worldview into a lie. Apart from God’s grace, man will always avoid the truth of God by exchanging it for a lie. Thus, as will be shown in our study of Acts 17, it is the job of the Christian to point out to the unbeliever what he already knows and let God do a work in his heart to bring him to repentance.

[All Scripture quotes are from the NASB, emphasis mine.]


1 To quote 1 Corinthians 2:8: “…the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;”

2 This is called “inaugurated eschatology”, meaning that something has begun now and will be finished at a later time. The kingdom of God is here now (Matthew 12:28), but it is still yet to come (Acts 1:6-8).

3 It is because His righteousness is universal over all humanity that the gospel is now preached to all of humanity.

4 The reason given by the psalmist for men’s disbelief is not lack of evidence but the desire for wickedness. The root of unbelief is moral, not epistemological. This is why so many unbelievers throughout the ages, when looked at closely, went into unbelief after they fell into major sin. They wanted to justify their already existing behavior by denying what they had previously believed. Just as with Adam and Eve, they would rather make appeal to something else than take responsibility for their own actions.

5 “The truth that we know-that we retain, possess, and suppress-therefore, is truth that is, fundamentally and essentially, given by God to us. God is the one who ensures that this truth will get through to us. It is his action, not ours, that guarantees our possession of this truth.” –K. Scott Oliphint in Revelation and Reason, K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), p.66.

6 This is similar to God setting eternity into the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and writing the work of the Law in their hearts (Romans 2:14-15).

7 As such, what Paul is speaking about in v.21 is not the capacity for this knowledge, but rather, this knowledge is possessed immediately, being given by God.

8 This verse has often been used to promote the idea that a Christian can simply appeal to general revelation as a means of showing that God exists to a skeptic. However, as Paul points out in Romans 1, men suppress this truth by exchanging it for a lie. A pagan in David’s time would have looked at the same stars and said that the heavenly bodies were gods! It was only under the presupposition of Biblical theism that David could say that the luminaries declared God’s glory since they were His creations. While general revelation is enough to hold man accountable for judgment, because of man’s wicked nature and the suppression of truth which results from it, man can never come to the knowledge of God without special revelation.

9 G.C. Berkouwer, Sin, Studies in Dogmatics, trans. Philip C. Holtrop (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p.134.

10 Cornelius Van Til, Christianity in Conflict, A Syllabus, I (Philadelphia: 1962), p.83.

11 K. Scott Oliphint in Revelation and Reason, K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), p.69.

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