Romans 1:21-23 The Perversion of the Truth


Our study of Romans 1:18-21 has shown what human beings have done in terms of their relationships to God. They have (1) suppressed the truth about God; (2) refused to glorify, or worship, God; and (3) neglected to be thankful. Because of the first and perhaps also because of the second and the third of these transgressions, the wrath of God has already begun to come upon them.

But the problem not only involves people’s relationships to God. It also involves what happens to them as a secondary result of their breaking of the ties that should exist between this holy and loving Creator and His rational creatures. When Adam rebelled against God it was not only his relationship to God that was broken. His relationship to Eve was broken also, and this, too, was to affect the history of mankind. Adam acted the fool, and he became one. So also with the race as a whole; thus, having spoken of that cosmic rebellion by which the human race has set its face against God, Paul goes on to declare verses 21-23. According to these words, the first result of man’s rebellion against God, so far as he himself is concerned, is that he became a fool. His heart was darkened.

The opening phrase of verse 21 tells how perversion to idolatry initially came about. “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God…” means there was a time when idolaters saw God as majestic, transcendent, all-powerful, infinitely greater than themselves. However, though they understood this, they did not honor Him but instead worshiped images like themselves. It’s important to see that what is involved is a falling away from high level truth, received by revelation, and not an upward climb to it.

It’s important to see this, because the world believes exactly the opposite. It tries to teach that the path of the race has been consistently upward from its original “animal” beginnings and that our present world religions or philosophies are a step upward from whatever religious sensibilities went before them. We have been taught that primitive ages of the race were marked by animism and that animism progressed upward to polytheism, which in turn produced monotheism. But this is not the way it happened. Research from anthropologists suggests that the original form of religion was monotheism and that the polytheistic or animistic religions we see today among certain “primitive” peoples are actually a falling away from that much higher standard. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools. For what could be more foolish that to have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for gods of our own devising?

In the midst of these important verses, Paul introduces another word that is extremely significant for understanding the nature of non-biblical religions and the human psychology that has produced them. This is the word exchanged. It occurs in verse 23 as well as verse 25. The word explains why the human race has been so determined to invent religions to replace worship of the one true God. The fact that people are religious does not prove that we are all seeking God. It proves the contrary. It proves that we are all running away from God. Although we are unwilling to know God and do not want Him, we are nevertheless unable to do without Him and try to fill the void with our substitute gods.

There is one more word we need to look at before we bring this study to a close, and that is the word darkness (v.21). Darkness is an image, of course. It’s the equivalent of Paul’s saying that “their thinking became futile” or “they became fools” or “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. When men and women turn away from God, they don’t admit this, of course. Instead, they speak of “bright new ideas,” “enlightenment” or “seeing the light.” But since God is the sole source of light, any ideas of enlightenment apart from Him that we may think we have are an illusion. And what we need is the revelation and power of God to bring us back from self-inflicted darkness into God’s light.

This is what has happened to Christians. We do not have any ability to rediscover the light of God by ourselves. Before God worked in us we were as much in the dark as anybody. In the case of Christians, God has uncovered for us the cause of our great spiritual trauma. He has dealt with our rejection of His revelation (as well as with all our other sins) in Christ, making that known to us. Then He has brought us back into harmony with Himself so that we no longer need fear Him or run away from Him but rather bask in His light.

We are also to live by His light. From Ephesians, Paul goes on to say: “Live as children of light (for the fruit of light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph. 5:8-10). If we are of the light, we must live by the light. If we know God, we must show it by being like Him.

Romans 1:21-23 Reflection Questions:

Today in the 21st century, what idols do we use instead of worshiping God?

Are you basking in God’s light daily? What does that mean to you?

Are you living by the light? What does that mean to you?

Romans 1:18-20 Natural Revelation


No one likes to talk about the wrath of God, particularly if it is thought of in relation to ourselves. But if we have to think about it, as our study of these verses obviously forces us to do, we find ourselves reacting generally in one of two ways. Either (1) we argue that wrath is somehow unworthy of God, a blotch on His character, and therefore a mistaken notion that should be abandoned at once by all right-thinking people; or (2) we reply by denying that we merit God’s wrath, that we  don’t deserve it. This second reaction is the more serious of the two. So it is the one Paul tackles in the development of his argument for the need we all have of the Christian gospel.

Romans 1:18-20 contains three important concepts, which together explain why the wrath of God against men and women is justified. The first is wrath itself. It is being revealed from heaven against the ungodly, Paul says. The second is the suppression of the truth about God by human beings, a point picked up and developed more fully in verses 21-23. The third idea is God’s prior revelation of Himself to those very people who suppress the truth about Him. These concepts need to be studied in inverse order, however. For when they are considered in that order – revelation, suppression, and wrath – they teach that God has given a revelation of Himself in nature sufficient to lead any right-thinking man or woman to seek Him out and worship Him, but that, instead of doing this, people suppress this revelation. They deny it so they don’t have to follow where it leads them. It is because of this willful and immoral suppression of the truth about God by human beings that the wrath of God comes upon them.

Revelation of God in Nature: It’s important to begin this study with some important definitions and distinctions. First, a definition: natural revelation means what it sounds like, namely, the revelation of God in nature. It is sometime called “general revelation,” because it’s available to everybody. Natural revelation is distinguished from “special revelation,” which goes beyond it and is the kind of revelation we find in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the revelation of the Bible’s meaning of the minds of those who read it by the Holy Spirit. When Paul talks about knowledge of God made plain to human beings as he does in this text, it is the general or natural revelation, not a specific scriptural revelation that he has in mind.

The second concept that needs to be defined here is “knowledge of God.” This is necessary because we can use the words know or knowledge in different ways. (1) Awareness: To begin on the lowest level, when we say that we know something we can be saying only that we are aware of its existence. (2) Knowing about: Knowing about something goes a step further, because knowledge in this sense may be detailed, extensive, and important. (3) Experience: The word know can also be used to refer to knowledge acquired by experience. (4) Personal: The last kind of knowledge is the highest and most important level. It is what we would call personal knowledge, the kind of knowledge we can only have of God, of ourselves, or of any human being. When the Bible speaks of knowing God in a saving way, this is what it has in mind. It involves the knowledge of ourselves in our sin and of God in His holiness and grace. It involves the knowledge of what He has done for us in Christ for our salvation and actual coming to know and love God through knowing Jesus Christ. It involves head knowledge, but also involves heart knowledge. It expresses itself in piety, worship, and devotion. It is what Jesus was speaking of when He prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

In the context of our text, of the four senses mentioned it is basically awareness, or nature that reveals God in such a way that, even without the special revelation of God that we have in the Bible, all men and women are at least aware that God exists and that they should worship Him. This awareness of God will not save them. But it is sufficient to condemn them if they fail to follow nature’s leading, as they could and should do, and seek out the true God so revealed.

Eternal Power and Divine Nature: Paul is precise here as he explains what the natural revelation involves. It consists of two elements: first, “God’s eternal power” and, second, God’s “divine nature” (v. 20). The second means quite simply that there is a God. In other words, people have no excuse for being atheists. The first means that the God, whom they know to exist, is all-powerful. People know this by definition, since a god who is not all-powerful is not really God. We can express these two ideas philosophically by the term “Supreme Being.” “Being” (with a capital “B”) refers to God’s existence. “Supreme” denotes His ultimate power. What Paul is saying is that nature contains ample and entirely convincing evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being. God exists, and we know it. Therefore, when people subsequently refuse to acknowledge and worship God, the problem is not in God or in the lack of evidence for His existence but in our own irrational and resolute determination not to know Him.

It’s important to understand that the revelation of God in nature is the limited disclosure of God’s existence and supreme power. There is no revelation of His mercy, holiness, grace, love, or the many other things necessary for us to learn if we are to know God savingly. Still, we are not to think of this limited revelation as minimal, as if somehow its limited quality alone can excuse us. According to the Bible, this natural revelation of God, though limited, is nevertheless extensive and overwhelming in its force. God’s revelation of Himself in nature does not stop with the external evidence for His existence, power, wisdom, and kindness, but it has what can be called an internal or subjective element as well. That is, not only has God given evidence for His existence; He has also given us the capacity to comprehend or receive it – though we refuse to do so.

Suppressing the Truth: This brings us to the second point of Paul’s argument in this section of Romans, the point that justifies and leads to God’s wrath; it is the human rejection of the revelation God has given. Paul’s description of what people have done in regard to natural revelation is in the phrase “who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). Why do we do this? It’s because we prefer sin to that to which the revelation of God would take us.

If, as Paul maintains, the revelation of God in nature is fully adequate to condemn people who do not allow it to bring them to worship and serve this true God, how much more terrible and awful is the case of the vast numbers of people, particularly in our country, who have not only the natural revelation to lead them to God but also have the Bible and the proclamation of its truths in virtually every town and hamlet of our land and (by means of radio and television and social media) at almost any hour, “without excuse”? The people of Rome were without excuse, and they had nothing but nature. No Bible, no churches, no preachers! What about us who have everything? If we reject what God tells us, we are a thousand times more guilty. No excuse! “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).

Romans 1:18-20 Reflection Questions:

What is your opinion of the “wrath of God,” do you believe it still applies in today’s world as it did in the Old Testament days?

Why do you think this country has so many atheists?

Who do you know to invite to church?

Romans 1:16-17 Confidence in the Power of the Gospel


Paul’s confidence in the power of the gospel, an underlying and recurrent theme of the book of Romans, is revealed here in two of the most powerful and cherished verses in all of the Bible. Paul had to be one of the gutsiest guys in all of history. This bow-legged, poor-sighted, little Jewish rabbi was ready to preach the gospel in Rome.

Rome was a city wherein anti-Semitism had reared its ugly head, resulting in waves of brutal persecution. Rome was the home of Caesar Nero, the madman who was determined to exterminate Christianity. Nero, the one who dressed thousands of Christians in the skins of lambs and threw them to wolves and lions as he cried, “Where is your Good Shepherd now, little flock?” Nero was the one who dipped Christians in hot wax and lit them as candles in his garden while he shrieked, “How does it feel to be the light of the world now, Christians?” Rome was the entertainment capital of the world with a moral standard so low it would make Hollywood blush. Rome was the military mecca where generals and captains paraded pompously on the backs of black stallions. Rome was where the accepted greeting of the day was, “Caesar is lord.”

For a Jewish Christian who claimed no other Lord than One who commanded no army, One who made His triumphal entry on the back of a donkey, One who was pinned to a Cross by Roman soldiers, to preach a message of repentance in Rome, would take guts indeed. Why could Paul not only declare that he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel, but that he was ready to preach it in Rome? In this study I’d like to suggest eight reasons why we shouldn’t be ashamed of this gospel.

The Gospel is “Good News”: The first reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is the meaning of the word gospel itself. It means “good news,” and no rational person should be ashamed of a desirable proclamation. It’s good news about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is the best news imaginable.

The Way of Salvation: The second reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is that it is about “salvation.” And not just any salvation, it is about the saving of ourselves. Left to ourselves, we are in desperate trouble. We are in trouble now because we are at odds with God, other people, and ourselves. We are also in trouble in regard to the future; for we are on a path of increasing frustration and despair, and at the end we must face God’s just wrath and condemnation. We are like swimmers drowning in a vast ocean of cold water or explorers sinking in a deep bog of quicksand. But there is good news! God has intervened to rescue us through the work of His divine Son, Jesus Christ.

God’s Way of Salvation: The third reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that it is God’s way of salvation and not man’s way. How could Paul be proud of something that has its roots in the abilities of sinful men and women or is bounded by mere human ideas? The world doesn’t lack such ideas. There are countless schemes for salvation, countless self-help programs. But these are all foolish and inadequate. What is needed is a way of salvation that comes not from man, but from God! That is what we have in Christianity! Christianity is God’s reaching out to save perishing men and women, not sinners reaching out to seize God.

The Power of God:  This leads to the fourth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, the matter he chiefly emphasizes in our text: The gospel is powerful. That is, it is not only good news, not only a matter of salvation, not only a way of salvation from God; it is also powerful enough to accomplish God’s purpose, which is to save us from sin’s pollution. It’s important to understand what’s involved here, for it is easy to misconstrue Paul’s teaching. When Paul says that “the gospel…is the power of God for salvation,” he is not saying that the gospel is about God’s power, as if it were merely pointing us to a power beyond our own. Nor is Paul saying that the gospel is the source of a power we can get and use to save ourselves. Paul’s statement is not that the gospel is about God’s power or even a channel through which that power operates, but rather that the gospel is itself that power. That is, the gospel is powerful; it is the means by which God accomplishes salvation in those who are being saved. He means that is, it’s the actual preaching of the gospel that the power of God is demonstrated in the saving of men and women.

A Gospel for Everyone: The fifth reason why Paul was not ashamed of this gospel is that it is a gospel for everyone – “everyone who believes.” It is “first for the Jew” and then also “for the Gentile.” Paul’s phrase has led readers to think that he was saying that the Jew was above the Gentile or than other people. But of course, this is not what Paul intends. In this text Paul means exactly the same thing Jesus meant when told the woman of Samaria that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Both were speaking chronologically. Paul’s point is that the gospel is for Gentile and Jew alike. It is for everyone!

Salvation Revealed to Sinners: The sixth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that God has revealed this way of salvation to us. If God had not revealed the gospel, we would not know of it and would be living with the same dreary outlook on life as the unsaved. But the gospel is revealed. Now we not only know about the Good News but are also enabled to proclaim God’s revelation. When Paul says that the gospel of God “is revealed,” he is saying that it is only by revelation that we can know it. It is not something we could ever have figured out for ourselves.

A Righteousness from God: The seventh reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that it concerns a righteousness from God, which is what we need. In ourselves we are not the least bit righteous. On the contrary, we are corrupted by sin and are in rebellion against God. To be saved from wrath we need a righteousness that is of God’s own nature, a righteousness that comes from God and fully satisfies God’s demands. This is what we have! It is why Paul can begin his exposition of the Good News in chapter 3 by declaring, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (v. 21).

By Faith from First to Last: The eighth and final reason why the apostle Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that the means by which this glorious gift becomes ours is faith, which means that salvation is accessible to “everyone who believes.” What does Paul mean when he writes “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last?” The meaning of the phrase is that the righteousness that is by faith (the first “faith”) is revealed to the perceiving faith of the believer (the second “faith”). This means that the gospel is revealed to you and is for you – if you will have it.

Romans 1:16-17 Reflection Questions:

Have you ever been ashamed of the gospel?

How are you proclaiming the gospel?

Do you have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

Romans 1:14-15 The Gospel is a Debt to the World


The NIV says “I am bound” and the RSV says “I am under obligation” which should be properly translated “I am [a] debtor” (AV). What Paul is saying in a sense is that he is in debt, not because he has borrowed anything from the Romans, but because Jesus Christ has entrusted him with the gospel for them. Several times in his letters he writes of having been “put in trust with the gospel”. It is true that this metaphor is one of stewardship (or trusteeship) rather than indebtedness, but the underlying thought is the same. It is Jesus Christ who has made Paul a debtor by committing the gospel to his trust. He was in debt to the Romans. As apostle to the Gentiles he was particularly in debt to the Gentile world, both to Greeks and non-Greeks (literally “barbarians”), both to the wise and the foolish (v. 14). Why did Paul feel this way? Because he was amazed at the goodness of God that saved him so radically at the very time he was erring so greatly.

Actually, the gospel has always been for everybody. God reminded Peter that the gospel was for Roman military officers, like Cornelius, as well as for those, like the Jews, were ceremonially “clean. (Acts 10:34-35). Jesus showed the geographical scope of the gospel’s proclamation in Acts version of the Great Commission (Acts 1:8). How easily we forget this! Christians forget, or at least willfully ignore, that the gospel is for people other than themselves. Unbelievers argue, as an excuse, that the gospel is for other types of people.

The gospel is for you if you are among the educated of our world. You need this ancient Christian gospel. Whatever your educational attainments, however wise you may be, you are still a sinful man or woman and are cut off from God who made you and to whom you must one day give account for your many sins. You are mortal. One day you will die. You will enter eternity with or without the Lord Jesus Christ – just as surely as any other man or woman. Your intellect and education are great gifts. But it is God who has given them to you. And if you do not thank Him for these gifts and use them in ways that honor Him, you are more deserving of judgment than those who are unintelligent. You need a Savior. The apostle Paul had one of the best educations of his day, having been taught in the wisdom of the Greeks as well as in the religious traditions of Israel. He was a Roman citizen too! But Paul learned that the gospel of the crucified Son of God alone was true wisdom.

The Greeks called “barbarians” all who were not Greek, the next category of people to whom Paul says he was obliged to preach the gospel. “Barbarian” did not have the negative overtones to the Greeks as it has for us, barbarians were people who didn’t speak Greek. Although the word “barbarian” didn’t have quite the negative overtones it has for us – some of the “barbarians” were quite cultured people – it nevertheless had some. Greek was the language of the educated. Since the histories, epics, and plays were in Greek, to be a barbarian was to be cut off from this cultural storehouse. Perhaps you are a person who feels yourself similarly disadvantaged. I suppose there are more people today who feel themselves to be cut off from the mainstream of society than there are people who feel a part of it.

You may feel cut off because of a lack of educational opportunities, or because of your race, or because of your low income, which shows in the clothes you wear, the neighborhood you live in, the car you drive, and many other distinctions. We too often forget that Jesus Christ didn’t go first to the wise, wealthy, or influential citizens of His day, but to the everyday people, whoever and wherever they were. The important people didn’t like Him for it! They called Him a friend to drunkards and sinners. Nevertheless, that is where He went. His friends were carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and others who worked hard for a living. After His death and resurrection, when the gospel began to spread beyond the geographical borders of Israel, it was among the working people – often among slaves – that it advanced most readily.

At the close of his statement of obligation to the Greeks and non-Greeks, the wise and unwise, Paul explains his views by declaring, “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” When he mentions “you who are at Rome” Paul isn’t adding a new category, for the Romans fit within the earlier Greek or non-Greek, wise or foolish groupings. The church at Rome included every conceivable type of man or woman and was therefore itself all-embracing. In essence Paul is saying, “The gospel is for you, whoever you may be and wherever you may find yourself.” The gospel is for everyone everywhere, whoever you are, you need the gospel. The world needs the gospel and the gospel it needs is the whole gospel of God’s grace to sinners through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. If you are not a Christian, you need to hear this and come to the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you are a Christian, you need to make this great news known to other people, as Paul did!

Romans 1:14-15 Reflection Questions:

Jesus has committed the gospel to your trust; what are you doing to share the gospel to the world?

What are some of your prejudices that you may have in regards to spreading the gospel?

If you are not a Christian, get with a Christian to help you come the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior!