09 June, 2019

Romans 1:23—“… images made like to corruptible man, birds, fourfooted beasts and creeping things …”

… image[s] made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things (Rom. 1:23).

It has been suggested, by some, that when the pagans worship idols of every sort, this idol worship is done in ignorance. The wicked, so it is said, worship idols because they do not know any better. They have not the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so they do not know that they must worship God, nor do they know how they can do this. Sometimes it is even added that the wicked long to worship the true God, but they do not know how to do this, and so they worship idols as an expression of their desire to worship God.


Ronald Hanko

[According to Romans 1, the] wicked do see [in the creation] “the invisible things of God,” particularly his eternal power and Godhead (v. 20). There is even an internal aspect to this manifestation of God. Verse 19 says that the things that may be known of God are manifest “in them.”

This has important implications. The manifestation of God in the things that are made is the reason no one will ever be able to plead in the judgment that he did not know God. There is, as far as Romans 1 is concerned, really no such thing as an atheist. Therefore, the wicked who never heard the gospel can and will be condemned in the judgment day as a result of this manifestation.

Nevertheless, the only result of this manifestation of God, as far as the wicked are concerned, is that they refuse to glorify God, continue unthankful, and change the glory of God, manifested to them and in them, into images of corruptible things (vv. 21-25).

Put simply, this means that the idolatry of the wicked is not a seeking after the God whom they do not know, or an attempt, however feeble, to find him. It is rather a turning away from the true God, whom they do know.

They are not, according to Romans 1, seeking truth, but suppressing it (v. 25). Their philosophies and religions do not represent a small beginning of truth or a love of truth, but truth refused and turned into lies.



Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Another Look at Common Grace (2019 edition), pp. 147-152]

[The heathen] people [are said, according to verse 18 of this chapter, to] suppress or hold under the truth. They deny it. They refuse to let it enter their consciousness. They do all in their power to keep it from being taught and believed.
Now it ought to be clear that if the wicked suppress the truth, they know that truth. One cannot suppress what he does not know.[248] And the apostle goes on to explain how it is that they know this truth.
One must remember that Paul is speaking here of the heathen who live outside the sphere of the preaching of the gospel. He is talking about the people of the Roman Empire, who, in his day, were characterized by all the sins which the chapter goes on to describe in such vivid detail. And in speaking of those outside the preaching of the gospel, he is speaking of all in heathendom, from his day to the present, who have not the preaching of the gospel.
How is it that these who have never heard the gospel nevertheless know the truth?
The answer is very clear.
We ought to note, at the outset, that, in explaining this idea, the apostle does not use the word “reveal.” The wicked do not know the truth by revelation, in the biblical sense of that term. The apostle uses here the word “manifest”: “That which may be known of God is manifest in them.” The Greek has here φανερόν στιν (phaneron estin). The word φανερόν (phaneron) is the adjective of the verb φανερόω (phaneróō). It is clear, therefore, that the Scriptures make a distinction between revelation and manifestation, and that Romans 1 is not referring to the former, but to the latter.[249]

However that may be, God does manifest Himself outside Scripture and Christ to those who have no knowledge of Scripture. Concerning that manifestation of God, the text in Romans 1 teaches the following:
1) This manifestation of God to those outside the sphere of revelation is the means by which all men without exception know the truth, the truth which they suppress in unrighteousness.
2) The truth is manifest in the wicked because God shows it to them (v. 19). That is, God Himself is determined to show Himself to the wicked so that they may truly know His truth.
3) This manifestation is “from the creation” and is understood by the wicked “through the things that are made.” That is, the creation itself, created by God, is the means by which God shows Himself to the wicked outside the gospel. It is evident in the creation that God is the Creator and that He has formed all things and still upholds all things by the Word of His power.[250] The trees and flowers, rain and sunshine, rivers and oceans, monkeys and antsall manifest God as the Creator.
4) What is manifested by God, in His works in creation, is “his eternal power and Godhead” (v. 20). Not all that may be known of God is clearly shown in creation. Basically, two things are shown: God’s eternal power and His Godhead. If one thinks about it, what Scripture has in mind here is this: In creation is manifested the great truth that God alone is God and that He alone must be served and worshiped. These fundamental truths are known to everyone. The lowliest pagan, the most uncivilized heathen, the natives in the darkest jungles of remote ocean islandsall know, through the things that are made, that God is God and that He alone is to be worshiped and served. No one can escape that knowledge. God Himself sees to it that that is known by every person alive.
This does not include, of course, the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. It might be well at this point to make a slight digression. The knowledge of God through Jesus Christ is the only knowledge of God by which men can be saved. The wicked who have a certain knowledge of God do not have such knowledge as will save them. There is only one name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved, and that is the name of God in Christ. Never can salvation come through God’s manifestation in creation.
It has been argued that this is cruel and unfair, since God does not give pagan man sufficient knowledge to be saved. And this objection seems to be strengthened by the fact that the apostle adds: “So that they may be without excuse.” The question then is this: How can they be “without excuse” if they have insufficient knowledge to be saved? But it must be remembered that fallen man was created by God good and upright, able in all things to know and love God. The fact that this is no longer possible, and that He needs knowledge in Christ to be saved, does not detract from his responsibility. That man fell is his own fault—not God’s. That pagan man can never be saved with the knowledge that he possesses is not injustice on God’s part, but is the result of man’s own consummate folly.[251]
5) This truth the wicked suppress. They know it. They cannot deny it. They are confronted with it. But in their sin they will have none of it. They hate it because they hate God. They not only make every effort to deny it, but they also suppress it in their own consciousness.
6) Yet God reveals all His power and Godhead to them “so that they may be without excuse.” In the Greek, this appears as a purpose clause. It is a definition of God’s purpose in making Himself known to all men. Very clearly this means that God has His own sovereign purpose in making Himself known. In the judgment day, no one in all the world will be able to say that the reason why he did not worship and serve God was because he was ignorant of Him. God will tell him: “You knew. You knew Me. I told you of Myself. You have no excuse. When I now send you to everlasting hell, I do so justly.” And every wicked man will have to admit, before the great white throne of Christ, that that is indeed true.
7) The text goes on to say that this suppression of the truth is the explanation for their idolatry. Twice over, the apostle makes this clear. In verse 21 he says: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” And in verses 22-23 he adds: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” And once more, in verse 25, the apostle says, “… who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than[252] the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.”
This is very clear language, and its repetition emphasizes how important it is. When the pagans worship idols of every sort, this idol worship is not ignorance. So often it is presented as such. The wicked, so it is said, worship idols because they do not know any better. They have not the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so they do not know that they must worship God, nor do they know how they can do this. Sometimes it is even added that the wicked long to worship the true God, but they do not know how to do this, and so they worship idols as an expression of their desire to worship God. Such notions are flatly contradicted by the apostle. Their idolatry is deliberate.
The wicked know the truth full well. They know it beyond denial. But they suppress it. And the way they suppress it is by changing God’s glory into a creaturely image and thus changing the truth into a lie. Note here the all-important word “change.” They deliberately and consciously, with malice aforethought, willfully and in rebellion against God, change His glory into a creature, and that creature they worship. They profess to be wise, but they are fools. They seek in every way possible to destroy God and to suppress that which they know about Him. This is their dreadful sin and the depths of their depravity.
8) Hence the wrath of God is upon them. And that wrath of God upon them is especially revealed, according to the apostle, in giving them over to the terrible sin of homosexuality. We ought to note that: God punishes sin with sin. And He, in His holy wrath, punishes idolatry with homosexuality. “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves” (v. 24). And again, “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature ...” (vv. 26ff.).
One need only read the rest of the chapter to see what are the dreadful consequences of man’s suppression of the truth of God.


248.    This same idea—now in the case of the unbelieving Jews—is expressed in Jesus’ words from Matthew 13, which we quoted earlier: “Seeing they see ...” There is, therefore, a certain formal knowledge of the truth which the wicked suppress. But revelation always gives saving knowledge.

249.     We are not interested in a controversy over the use of terminology for its own sake. But it is my conviction that to use the biblical concept of revelation to describe God’s manifestation to the heathen is a mistake which has had serious consequences in the history of Reformed thought. As we mentioned earlier, just because revelation, when it refers to God’s work of making Himself known in Christ, is part and parcel of grace, the conclusion has been made that “general revelation” is also somehow grace.

250.    While our present interest is not in the theory of evolution—a theory which denies God’s creative work—it is clear, also from this passage, that to deny creation, in the interests of evolutionary theory, is to deny that God makes Himself known to the wicked through creation. The whole truth of Romans 1:18ff rests upon a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

251.     This important truth implies the truth of original guilt. Man is responsible, not only for his own sin, but, also, for the sin which Adam committed in Paradise in eating of the forbidden tree. All men are guilty for this sin, and man’s total depravity is his fault, for which he is accountable before God. This is the clear teaching of Romans 5:12-14, and this truth is maintained by all the historic Reformed and Presbyterian creeds. It is, as a matter of fact, the great dividing point between the Reformed faith and all forms of Arminianism. Scripture is clear on the doctrine that total depravity is the just punishment of God upon the human race, who are guilty, in Adam, for Adam’s sin. See a clear statement of this truth in Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 4: “Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law that which he cannot perform? Not at all; for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own wilful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts” (Q&A 9)

252.     The Greek here can be better translated “rather than.”



More to come! (DV)

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