Exposition of Romans 1:18-20 — They know — Oh yes! — they know!

At some point in our lives every one of us has played dumb. We claimed that we did not know that Mom said to be home by five oclock because our sister did not tell us. So, why was Mom giving us that doubting look at half-past-five?

The truth was that our sister had told us when to be home, but Mom could not quite be certain of that, so at times we got away with playing dumb. The astonishing thing is that some people grow up and try that same scam on God. They imagine the existence of some large group of people who do not know about God, and think surely God would not judge those who do not know him. We used to call it the heathen-in-Africa problem and imagined some stone-age scene.

News flash: there is no such group! As we will see, there are plenty who need to hear how to join Gods kingdom, but all humanity knows there is a powerful God who must be sought and found.

(ESV) Romans 1:18-20 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Like a brilliant diamond on black velvet, the good news that Gods righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ (1:16-17) contrasts with the sin-darkened state of all humanity outside of Christ. And we must recall that all Christians were once outside of Christ with all the rest of humanity. So, the somber account from verse 18 to the end of the chapter illuminates part of our personal history and shows the fatal trajectory our lives might have taken except for the grace of God.

Some have considered Pauls assessment of humanitys sinfulness (1:18-31) too negative. C.E.B. Cranfield points out that the assessment is not actually Pauls:

It is not Pauls judgment of his contemporaries that we have here, but the gospels judgment of men, that is of all men. . . . The section depicts man as he appears in the light of the cross of Christ. It is not a depiction of specially bad men only, but the innermost truth of all of us, as we are in ourselves.[1]

But human sinfulness is not the only unwelcome disclosure from heaven. Those who wish to impose their own views on the biblical text totally reject the idea of Gods wrath (1:18), though it takes real conceptual gymnastics to explain it away in light of all the biblical evidence.[2] Evangelical scholars generally consider denial of Gods wrath to be a key part of liberal theology, which embraces anti-supernaturalism and a humanistic viewpoint that are essentially useless for understanding the Bible. If you are looking for a blind guide on the biblical trail, a liberal theologian is your man.

Cranfield comments on the parallel revelations of righteousness (in 1:17) and wrath (in 1:18) by saying: The two revelations referred to in these two verses are then really two aspects of the same process. The preaching of Christ crucified, risen, ascended and coming again, is at the same time both the offer to men of a status of righteousness before God and the revelation of Gods wrath against their sin.[3] Gods holy wrath against sin is exactly why Jesus had to die for our sins.

Against what is Gods wrath directed? By answering all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (1:18), Paul uses two words that are very close in meaning; Douglas Moo approvingly cites Cranfield’s opinion that the first word asebeia characterizes sin as an attack on the majesty of God and the second word adikia speaks of sin as a violation of Gods just order.[4] Imagine sinful humanity shaking its fist at God and rejecting both his rulership and his way of life.

How was this rejection of Gods truth expressed? Romans 1:18 says, by their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth; by living as rebels against the rule of God, humanity suppresses Gods truth. One of the worst effects of extreme postmodernism is that it denies the possibility of absolute truth, makes everything a matter of opinion and declares everyones opinion to be worthy. Extreme postmodern says: You claim God has spoken truth; well, thats just your opinion. And if God did speak, thats only his opinion. I have my own opinion!

Someone might say that those who suppress Gods truth should be excused because they are victims of ignorance, but Paul stops that argument in a hurry by saying, What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them (1:19). The gospel contains this chilling truth: every single member of humanity knows enough to be responsible before God, because he has made sure they each know enough. No one will be able to stand before God and say that they did not know there was a God to whom they were responsible. All people are on notice!

In saying what can be known about God is plain to them, Paul uses the Greek adjective phaneros, which means, being evident so as to be readily known, visible, clear, plainly to be seen, open, plain, evident, known.[5] The word phaneros occurs in Acts 4:16 when it was common knowledge in Jerusalem that Peter and John had healed the man who had been lame from birth (Acts 3:110). In Mark 6:14, the word is used of Herods knowledge that Jesus disciples had worked many miracles; everyone knew. We are not talking here about experts knowing something; all know there is a God.

If someone asks how God made this disclosure, Paul provides the answer in Romans 1:20. The creation itself –perhaps also the things that God has done in history –testifies to his eternal power and divine nature (1:20) even though those aspects of God are otherwise invisible. Moo says, These properties of God that cannot be seen . . . are seen . . . –an example of the literary device called oxymoron, in which rhetorical effect is achieved by asserting something that is apparently contradictory.[6]

We will take a closer look at what God has made plain to humanity. His eternal power (1:20) created the deeply-designed world, including humanity, and that power operated before the world existed. More than that, humanity also knew his . . . divine nature (1:20), the Greek noun theoites, which means divinity, divine nature, divineness.[7] So, all humanity knows there is a God and he has eternal power. James Dunn rightly says, That this is no longer a widely-acceptable worldview should not, of course, influence our exegesis of Paul.[8] The suppression of truth is stronger than ever! But we proclaim the gospel anyway.

God had a purpose in humanitys knowing his eternal power and divinity, and that purpose is declared clearly in Acts 17, when Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens about God:

From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him– though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27, NLT).

If some members of humanity have not sought after God, after he enabled them to do so, they are without excuse (1:20).

Common-knowledge about God

Be clear that plenty of people still need to learn more about Jesus and how to be justified before God. But you may be equally certain that every person knows that there is a God who is powerful that they should seek and find. They may suppress that knowledge in various ways because they do not want to seek God, but God has already reached out to them in a way they have comprehended.

1. If we start with the understanding that non-Christians are suppressing the truth, how should this affect our approach in helping them reach out for Christ? Perhaps they are weary of fighting God or think they have burned that bridge. Why might they keep suppressing the truth even over a long period of time?

2. How might the Scripture we studied today affect the way we pray for those outside of Christ? What preparation might we make for offering information and support to those who desperately need to know about Christ?

The things we have studied today have serious implications about Gods fairness and about the moral vulnerability of all people before God. He is patiently waiting for the rebels to put aside their suppression of the truth and to seek his mercy through Jesus Christ.

Copyright 2012 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials developed for Christ Fellowship (McKinney, Texas), by permission.

 


[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 104.

[2] Ernst Ksemann, Romans, Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980) 37, provides a typical example of a theologian who rejects Gods wrath.

[3] Cranfield, Romans, 110.

[4] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 102, footnote 50, citing Cranfield, Romans, 112.

[5] BDAG-3, phaneros, clear, q.v.

[6] Moo, Romans, 104-105.

[7] BDAG-3, theoites, divineness, q.v.

[8] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988) 58.