3. No Excuse for the Heathen (Romans 1:18-32 )
This past week the lot fell to me to be on jury duty. After a long morning of waiting in a smoke-filled room I jumped at the chance of getting out into the warmth of the sun during lunch hour. I sat down on a park bench outside the courthouse and continued to study for this message on Romans 1.
Just as I was beginning to get into my reading a couple of ‘knights of the road’ came with their wine bottle and sat down beside me. After I had declined ‘a little drink’ a time or two, they became curious as to what I was trying so hard to study. I told them I was preparing to preach a sermon on Romans 1. After some discussion, I read them these words from that chapter: “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).
It wasn’t too long before one of the men decided it was time to get up and go buy another bottle of wine, as they had already consumed the first. Now the man who got up and left said that he had a degree in engineering and had been making $144,000 a year. He said when he got to the top of the ladder of success and saw what it was like he decided he preferred life at the bottom of the ladder and has continued there ever since. He knew a great deal about Christianity and said his former wife was still prominent in Christian circles.
Now this text in Romans 1 is very relevant to these two winos for it depicts their situation to a ‘T.’ But it is important to us as well for it plainly answers one of the questions most frequently asked by the unsaved, “How can a God of love condemn to eternal torment those who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ?”
Romans 1 is also important to us because ever since the inception of the theory of evolution, some theologians have applied this erroneous theory to religion, positing an upward rise of religion from very primitive and pagan origins to that which is more refined and dignified. Religion, they would have us believe, began in the slime of polytheism and slowly emerged into monotheism.
Paul says this is not so, for in this first chapter of Romans he gives us a historical sketch of religion. He maintains that religion was at the beginning monotheistic, and that man, when he turned from God’s view of Himself in creation, twisted and perverted pure religion into various forms of error and confusion.
God’s Revelation in Nature
There is available to every man a certain knowledge of God. This knowledge is attainable by observing the handiwork of God in creation. Just as we can learn much of a writer by studying his work, or of a painter by his paintings, so, also, we can learn of God from His handiwork, His creation. We may learn, Paul says in verse 20, of God’s eternal power and of His divine nature. Who can look at the raging power of the Niagara Falls and not be struck with the power of the One Who created them? Who can study the power of the atom and not be impressed with the infinite power of the Creator? And who can ponder creation without concluding that someone far greater than mortal man was the originator of it all?
As the Psalmist put it long ago: “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). The witness of creation to its Creator has been acknowledged by many great minds.
Dr. Horstmann testified, “My scientific conscience forbids me not to believe in God.”6
Pasteur concurred, “Just because I reflected I remained a believer.”7
Dr. A. Nueberg agrees when he says, “God is the cause of all things, and whoever thinks in terms of cause and effect thinks in the direction of God.”8
Even an unbeliever like Voltaire confessed, “I do not know what I should think about the world. I cannot believe this clock exists without a clockmaker.”9
Granted, there are some who are students of creation, but who do not seem to be able to look beyond to the Creator. They look at creation in the way a glass-maker analyzes the glass in a display window. They note its thickness and freedom from distortion. They observe the size and quality of the glass and the way it is framed. But they fail to look through the glass to the display behind, the true purpose of the glass being overlooked.10
Man’s Response to God’s Natural Revelation
Man's proper response to the revelation of God should have been worship and grateful acknowledgment: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks …” (Romans 1:21a).
Man’s response to natural revelation is three-fold. First of all is the initial act of rejection: Men simply refuse to accept God as He has revealed Himself. Paul tells us in verse 18 that men “… suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” They refuse God as He is. How often we consider the problem of the heathen to be lack of revelation. We somehow view God as withholding revelation essential to the salvation of the pagan. But Paul describes the heathen as having confined God's revelation to a box of their own making, and piling on the lid of the box their own sins. The pagan’s problem is not the sparsity of revelation, but the suppression of it.
Whenever we reject one explanation of the facts we must necessarily counter with an alternative. This is precisely the situation with the heathen. They have rejected God’s revelation of Himself and they have replaced it with another. The key word here is ‘exchanged’ (vv. 23, 25, 26). Instead of worshipping the God Who made man in His own image, they made gods in their image. They worshipped the creature rather than the Creator. Bad enough to conceive of God in terms of humanity, but they went far beyond this to represent God in terms of the beasts of the earth. The Greeks had their Apollo, the Romans the eagle, the Egyptians the bull, and the Assyrians the serpent. Paul may have been alluding to these ‘gods.’
Not only did the heathen exchange the truth of God for a lie, but they also exchanged the blessings of God in His provision for sexual fulfillment for that which is unnatural and disgusting. “… 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 towards one another …” (Romans 1:26b-27a). There is here, I believe, a deadly sequence of events. Rejection of God’s revelation leads to idolatry, and idolatry leads to immorality and man at last plummets into the grossest perversions imaginable.
If you have thought of the heathen as an idolater because he didn’t know any better, Paul insists that he is an idolater because he has refused to know better, suppressing God’s self-revelation.
God’s Response to Man’s Rebellion
We know that these verses in Romans chapter 1 are part of the section on condemnation. Paul is seeking to establish the fact that all men justly deserve the consequences of the eternal wrath of God. The thrust of these verses, however, is not primarily that God will judge the heathen because of his rejection of the truth, but rather that God is judging the heathen for his rebellion and rejection.
The wrath of God, then, is not merely future; it is also present. Men face the consequences for their sins in eternity but also in the present. Paul’s point in this section is not so much that God will punish men because of their idolatry and immorality, but that idolatry and immorality is itself punishment for rejecting divine revelation.
Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18 NIV).
If the key word for the rejection and sin of the heathen is “exchanged,” the key expression for the manifestation of the wrath of God in the present is “gave them over” (vv. 24, 26, 28). Because men rejected what was clearly evident about God, God gave men over to idolatry, immorality and perversion. As men practice these things they are getting what they deserve: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them” (Romans 1:24). “… receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Romans 1:27b).
To a great extent, the judgment of God is getting exactly what we want. Men reject God’s revelation of Himself and God gives men over to idolatry. Men reject God and His purposes for men and God gives man over to practice the unnatural. Not only is this so in the present; it will be so in the future.
In the time of the great tribulation, God will allow men to do as they please. He will remove all restraints. But men will learn that there is no joy or pleasure possible when each seeks his own pleasure at the expense of others. Men want God to leave them alone; they want none of His controls. So God removes His controlling and restraining hand (Colossians 1:16, 17) and the universe begins to fall apart at the seams (Matthew 24:29). Men wish God to leave them alone, and God gives them an eternity of separation from Himself (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
What an awesome thought. Hell is getting exactly what we want. And on the reverse side of the coin, how grateful we Christians should be to our heavenly Father Who has and will withhold much of what we ask for, for our own good.
Paul’s point is simply this: God is righteous in His expression of wrath on the heathen, for they have rejected God’s revelation of Himself in creation. The evidence of God’s wrath is seen in idolatry, immorality and perversion.
Principles From this Passage
From this passage we may extract a number of important principles which apply not only to the heathen in Africa, but to us as well.
(1) God is just in condemning the heathen. Paul has proven that God is righteous and just in condemning the heathen, for they have rejected God’s revelation in creation. The revelation which the heathen rejected was not sufficient for salvation, but it was adequate for condemnation. If I were to ask you for a nickel and you refused, what good would it be to ask for a quarter, a dollar, or $1,000? Our response to God’s revelation in nature is evidence of our response to any amount of revelation. Our Lord said to the rich man in Sheol, concerning his lost relatives, “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Our response to divine revelation reveals the condition of our hearts toward God, and the condition of our hearts determines our response to any revelation we receive. The scribes and Pharisees refused to believe the claims of our Lord in spite of insurmountable evidence.
But what of someone who does respond positively to the revelation of God in nature? We would be correct to assume that those whose hearts God opens will be given the necessary revelation of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Such was the case with a man like Cornelius. He was told by an angel, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4b). Because he responded to the revelation of God that was available, God gave full revelation which led to the salvation of Cornelius and his household.
One further thing concerning the heathen which should be helpful. Since the Bible teaches that there are degrees of punishment for the wicked, proportionate to the amount of revelation they have received (Luke 12:47, 48), then it is an act of grace that God has not revealed more than He has to the heathen.
I must also say that although we should be concerned for the heathen across the sea, I am, as a good friend of mine would say, “More concerned about the pagan across the table, than the one across the sea.” For you, my friend, have far more knowledge for which you must give account to God.
(2) God punishes sin with sin. We have often been accustomed to thinking of sin in terms of drunkenness, immorality and perversion. Now, of course, this is sin, but the root sin is the sin of unbelief. Often the sins of immorality and perversion are in reality God’s judgment in the present for men’s rebellion against Himself. If the sin of unbelief results in the sin of immorality, we should also recognize that the morality of any person, any people, any nation will not be improved significantly apart from revival and conversion.
(3) Man is not religiously (or any other way) evolving upward, but downward. Paul’s historical sketch of heathen religion is evidence that man’s religion has degenerated in proportion to his rejection of God’s revelation.
(4) Idolatry and unbelief are evil bed-fellows. Paul indicates a direct relationship between unbelief and idolatry (vv. 21-23). We would not be correct in thinking, however, that idolatry is only practiced with images of stone or clay, for idolatry, at its heart, is fashioning God in our own image. Idolatry is sinful because it fails to do justice to God’s perfection. Idolatry misrepresents God, often distorting His character as a cartoonist characterizes the features of a prominent personality. But we distort God with wrong concepts and wrong theology just as much as we do with physical likenesses which have no resemblance. Theology is simply a word-picture of God. If we are wrong here, we are idolaters.
I say this because I often hear people say things like this: “I like to think of God as a God of love. I can’t conceive of this kind of God sending anyone to hell.” We have thus made God in our image according to our preferences. And at the same time we have turned away from the revelation of God in creation and in the Bible. Beware of theological idolatry.
(5) Homosexuality is an evidence of the wrath of God on sin. We all know of recent attempts to liberalize our thinking concerning homosexuality. Worse yet this is being done under the banner of Christianity.11 In no uncertain terms Paul has identified homosexuality as sin, and has also implied that the predominance of homosexuality in any society is a sign of God’s present and future judgment. It is historically the ear-mark of a decadent society.
When I think of this matter of homosexuality I cannot help but recall a letter to the editor in a recent issue of The Wittenburg Door:
You have often supported the cause of the Christian feminists with a compassion for them and their struggle with the Apostle Paul. It is my hope that you have the same compassion for the Christian gays which we represent. Homosexuality can be sinful, but it can be Christian as well. Any form of sexuality (homo or hetero) can be abused, but it can also be used for the glory of God and the blessing of God’s people. I would be interested in sharing more if you are interested. I only hope that you have some compassion for the gays who struggle with Paul and who love the Lord Jesus Christ.12
What is the basic issue involved here? The same as with the feminist movement. It is the issue of our response to the inspired, inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word of God. Their struggle is not with Paul alone; it is with the Word of God. Rejection of His Word opens the door to every kind of evil. Some have gone too far in teaching that since homosexuality is a manifestation of the judgment of God, the homosexual is beyond hope. This does not square with what Paul wrote elsewhere:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis mine).
The most cruel and inhumane thing we can do to the homosexual is to deny that his problem is one of sin. Medical science and psychiatry have almost no hope for the homosexual. But Jesus Christ died that we might be freed from sin. If homosexuality is sin, then, my friend, there is a sure solution.13
(6) An inference concerning infants who die. There is in these first chapters of Romans an inference concerning infants who die before they are confronted with the claims of Christ. In every instance, the apostle Paul defends the righteousness of God in condemning the sinner because he (or she) has had some revelation which has been rejected. I would understand, by inference, that an infant who has not had any revelation concerning God or the ability to reasonably respond to it would not fall under the condemnation of God. On the basis of Romans 5, I would understand children and imbeciles to be covered by the blood of Christ. We serve a God Who is gracious and compassionate, a God of mercy.
There is no question about it in the mind of Paul; even the ignorant heathen is found guilty of rejecting God and His revelation in creation. If there is no excuse for him, there will be no excuse for us, and this Paul will make plain in the next section.
10 “A glass window stands before us. We raise our eyes and see the glass; we note its quality, and observe its defects; we speculate on its composition. Or we look straight through it on the great prospect of land and sea and sky beyond. So there are two ways of looking at the world. We may see the world and absorb ourselves in the wonders of nature. That is the scientific way. Or we may look right through the world and see God behind it. That is the religious way.
“The scientific way of looking at the world is not wrong any more them the glass-manufacturer’s way of looking at the window. This way of looking at things has its very important uses. Nevertheless the window was placed there not to be looked at but to be looked through; and the world has failed of its purpose unless it too is looked through and the eye rests not on it but on its God. Yes, its God; for it is of the essence of the religious view of things that God is seen in all that is and in all that occurs. The universe is his, and in all its movements speaks of him, because it does only his will.” Benjamin B. Warfield, “Some Thoughts on Predestination,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1970), Vol. I, p. 108.
11 This is illustrated by a book which will be released this year by Harper entitled Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Note the comments of this review in The Christian Newsletter: “The authors claim homosexuality is morally permissible, even if not commendable, when confined to a covenant relationship where partners are faithful to each other. They stress that evangelicals have yet to deal adequately with the issue.
“In reinterpreting Bible passages on homosexuality, the authors take on the church’s historic understanding of the issue. They proclaim: l) the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality but “forced sexual activity” and inhospitality; 2) the Levitical injunction against homosexuality is as meaningless as injunctions against eating rare meat or wearing mixed fabrics; and 3) Paul’s admonishment against homosexuality was against a particular kind of homosexual act.
“Scanzoni and Mollenkott suggest that while homosexual relations may not be God’s ideal, some accommodation needs to be made in a fallen world. They write, ‘Stable homosexual relationships could be said to lie within the permissive will of God to persons incapable of heterosexual rezationships.’ While their conclusions are couched in ‘maybes’ and ‘could bes,’ their purpose is to loosen evangelicals from their traditional approach to a more ‘accepting’ position.” “Gleanings,” Evangelical Newsletter, Jan. 27, 1978, pp. 2-3.
13 “In verse 26 Paul speaks of homosexuality as a “degrading passion,” in verse 27, as an “indecent act” and “an error,” in verse 28, the improper activity of a “depraved mind,” and in verse 32, declares it is “worthy of death.” One is not a homosexual constitutionally any more than one is an adulterer constitutionally. Homosexuality is not considered to be a condition, but an act. It is viewed as a sinful practice which can become a way of life. The homosexual act, like the act of adultery, is the reason for calling one a homosexual (of course one may commit homosexual sins of the heart, just as one may commit adultery in his heart. He may lust after a man in his heart as another may lust after a woman). But precisely because homosexuality, like adultery, is learned behavior into which men with sinful natures are prone to wander, homosexuality can be forgiven in Christ, and the pattern can be abandoned and in its place proper patterns can be reestablished by the Holy Spirit. Some homosexuals have lost hope because of the reluctance of Christian counselors to represent homosexuality as sin.” Quote by Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 139.