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?