Romans 1:18-23 – Idolatry
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 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.Romans 1:18–23
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,”
This section of Romans relates the fall of Adam to the present condition of man. He specifically has in mind “those who knew God” and “knew the ordinance of God” (Romans 1:32). That is, he is talking about the Jews and Israelites who had abandoned the law.
The individuals with which Paul dealt in his ministry suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. Although they were aware of God’s will, they elected to live against it. This is Paul’s contention with the Jewish members of his audience and his evidence for why they were not much better off than the Gentiles.
Just as the gospel reveals God’s righteousness, as in the previous verse, it also reveals God’s wrath. God’s wrath in this context is turning over people to the live’s which they choose. If they wish to live a miserable life of hate, for all sin is the absence of love, then God allows them to do that. There will be nobody inside or outside of Heaven who does not choose to be there.
“because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.”
God revealed His will, that new commandment which was also an old commandment, that His people were to love their enemies. Some have asked me, “Don’t thieves love their enemies?” These individuals do not understand love. Love, as Paul will say in Romans 13, can do no harm to a neighbor. Thieves obviously do not fall into that category.
God didn’t just demonstrate His love through written law, but through manna, water, and light by night. In rejecting the Law, they were rejecting the life that God showed for them in the wilderness.
“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 creation of the world here is not simply the physical creation, but the order, complexity, and harmony that is inherent in the world; it is a certain way of ordering the world. Sin destroys this harmony because it takes us away from love, the connecting force that brings everything together. Adam and Eve took part in the ordering of the world, but they rejected their calling through not trusting in their divine nature that was inherent in their creation. Instead, they sought to be like God through their own abilities (taking from the tree) and lost access to the Garden.
Jesus appealed to the creation to make points about the nature of God.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Matthew 5:44–45
Paul later says that even the Gentiles were able to fulfill the Law without even knowing it.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.Romans 2:14–16
Another way to view this passage, as men like Franklin Camp have pointed out, is that the creation here is Israel. The argument goes that one cannot truly know God except through special revelation. As Hugh Ross, from Reasons to Believe, often points out, the physical creation only points to a “slice” of God. It proves deity exists, he argues, but it doesn’t prove the God of the Bible exists. That would take further examination of history and the biblical text.
Which of these two interpretations do I hold? I’m not sure. I see merits in both, but perhaps it will become more clear as we move through the class.
“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.”
This passage presents a possible obstacle to the traditional interpretation of this passage. The Gentiles, as Paul admits elsewhere, were without God in the world, without the law, and without the commandments. How, then, could they be classified as those who knew God?
As we will see in the following passages, this appears to be focused on the Jewish audience of Paul.
“Professing to be wise, they became fools,”
There are many similarities between this passage and a few texts from 1 Corinthians1-2. In both, Paul addresses the foolishness of the Jewish leaders in their rejection of the Messiah. God makes the foolishness of this world wise and the wise foolish.
Take the expression “eye for an eye” for example. This statement appears to the wise, just, and righteous, but Jesus turns it on its head when He says, “Turn the other cheek!”
Unrighteousness leads to false wisdom and false righteousness.
“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.”
This appears to be an echo of Psalm 106.
They made a calf in Horeb And worshiped a molten image. Thus they exchanged their glory For the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God their Savior, Who had done great things in Egypt, Wonders in the land of Ham And awesome things by the Red Sea.Psalm 106:19–22
If so, then this passage is about Israel and her status as God’s creation, the church being the new creation. If not, then this could be a general text about the problems with idolatry. To be honest, I’m not totally settled on either interpretation, but I do not see at this moment how this would have any impact in interpreting the rest of the book.
The major point is that when people turn to their own righteousness, which is unrighteousness in disguise, then they create God in their own image.