- “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:” (Romans 1:20)
The portion of Scripture from Romans 1:18 through 3:20 has often been compared to a courtroom scene in which all of mankind is on trial. With the Apostle Paul serving as a “prosecuting attorney”, the case against man is deftly and thoroughly presented resulting in an incontrovertible guilty verdict. I have often looked at these passages with just such a metaphor in mind; seeing the logical progression of Paul’s argument move seamlessly from one piece of evidence to the next until he concludes his remarks with the summation that “There is none righteous, no, not one” (3:10). But the more time I spend in these verses, the less it resembles a “courtroom trial” and the more the entire section looks like the reading of a foregone verdict. To think of Romans 1:18-3:20 as a “trial’ is to suggest that a case is being made — that a verdict has yet to be reached and the possibility of exoneration for the accused exists. But no such solicitation of defense is made nor is any opportunity implied for the indicted to provide any explanation or alibi which might alleviate their guilt. In fact, among Paul’s final comments in this section are the words “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (3:19). There are those who plan to offer up an explanation of mitigating circumstances when they stand before God one day, but no such opportunity will be given. For those who trust in anything but Christ, no excuse will be accepted; indeed, no excuse will even be considered.
The Wrath Of God Revealed
There has always been a difficulty in evangelism of finding the balance between presenting both the love of God to a lost and hurting world and presenting the wrath of God to a proud and apathetic world. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many instances of going from one extreme to the other. From the “Hell fire and brimstone” preachers of old whose messages seemed to do little more than frighten their audience into submission to the “gospel” of today’s more liberal denominations who deny the existence of Hell entirely and preach that God is unconditionally accepting of not only the sinner but his sin. Yet here in Romans 1:17-18, Paul is presenting both aspects of God in balance: both as part of His nature and both realities of His character. For just as the righteousness of God is revealed in Verse 17 (and His love therein), so, too, is His wrath revealed from Heaven (v. 18). Both qualities of a loving yet Holy God exist simultaneously. God is faithful to justify the sinner when he trusts in Christ, but He is also faithful to judge the sins of every man who chooses not to.
It is fitting, therefore, that Paul would begin his presentation of the Gospel by clearly illustrating the condition of man apart from God. No legitimate presentation of the Gospel is ever complete without an honest understanding of why it is necessary that man come to Christ in the first place. Many people reject the Gospel because they do not understand what it is exactly that Christ came to save them from. We tell them “Jesus is the Answer” to which they candidly reply, “What is the question?” The Church over the past Century or so has drifted further and further away from a Biblically sound presentation of the Gospel and has replaced it with a more user-friendly, politically correct, inoffensive “gospel” that teaches little more than Jesus Christ as a non-judgmental Buddy Who promises to make the believer’s every dream come true. The wrath of God is never mentioned and passages such as Romans 1:18-3:20 are seldom talked about, even within the walls of the Church. Consequently, non-believers reject Christ with the feeling that He is either powerless or irrelevant and many who do “convert” do so spuriously with little understanding of the reality of their plight apart from the Lord. It is no wonder that we see so little authentic committment to holy living and so scarce of deep-felt conviction among most of those who name the name of Christ.
Paul’s presentation of the Gospel in the Book of Romans does not bypass man’s need for a Savior at all. This first brick in the Romans Road may not be a very attractive or flattering one, but it is foundational to all of the glorious bricks of gold that will follow. We cannot step over it in order to get to the more uplifting portions, nor is it intended for us to do so. The Spirit of God has ensured that our journey through this Book of the Bible would begin with a painstaking assessment of our predicament apart from Christ. For in these verses, every person will be left without any hope of reconciliation with God by any other means than through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit will mercifully scatter the straws to which we cling and leave us in a truly desperate and hopeless condition until we have nowhere else to look but to Christ. We begin first with a look at the denial of God’s very existence:
Is “Atheism” An Alibi?
“…There is a marvelous anecdote from the occasion of [Bertrand] Russell’s ninetieth birthday that best serves to summarize his attitude toward God and religion. A London lady sat next to him at this party, and over the soup she suggested to him that he was not only the world’s most famous atheist but, by this time, very probably the world’s oldest atheist. “What will you do, Bertie, if it turns out you’re wrong?” she asked. “I mean, what if — uh — when the time comes, you should meet Him? What will you say?” Russell was delighted with the question. His bright, birdlike eyes grew even brighter as he contemplated this possible future dialogue, and then he pointed a finger upward and cried, “Why, I should say, ‘God, you gave us insufficient evidence.'” (1)
For a great many “devout atheists”, the sentiment of Bertrand Russell seems to be an oft-repeated mantra of explanation concerning their skepticism. “The evidence is insufficient“, they proudly declare; as if to suggest that they have caught the Creator of the Universe in some sort of technicality which alleviates their responsibility and nullifies God’s prerogative to judge them. What they are really saying is that they are dissatisfied with the evidence which God has given. What ultimately matters is not whether or not man believes sufficient evidence has been given, but whether or not God says that sufficient evidence has been given. Without a doubt, the Word of God declares that God has indeed provided enough evidence.
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.” (Romans 1:19)
First of all, there is the internal awareness of God which every person is born with. Granted, children must be taught about God’s nature and a proper understanding of Who God is only comes by revelation of the Holy Spirit, but the fact that there is a God is not something of which we must strive to persuade kids. People are not born as atheists with a special effort necessary to convince them otherwise, it is quite the other way around. Along with this internal awareness of God is man’s God-given conscience. The mere existence of conscience itself is a problematic enigma for those who believe that man arose by means of Evolution. For what purpose does a conscience serve if man’s chief end is survival and the advancement of self? Why would Natural Selection prefer such a “bothersome” and “inefficient” mechanism as a conscience? If the axiom of life is survival of the fittest, then why would the fittest be concerned at all with the “weaker” and less “viable” creatures within the species? It has been the greatest conundrum of modern Psychology to attempt to rid man of this “troublesome” thing called guilt, but it has proven impossible to extinguish it entirely. Man has had some success in muffling the witness of his conscience, but not to completely silencing it.
It is this very effort to which Paul refers in Romans 1:18 when he says, “…Who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” To hold here is to suppress, to hold down, to stifle. Contrary to what the modern skeptics would like us to believe, it is not the religious person who is “swimming upstream” against his nature, but the irreligious. A belief in God is not a relic of past ignorance which has survived against all odds into contemporary, “enlightened” thought. It is the atheist who must make the effort to push the thought of God from his mind. But man has done so and continues to do so. And as Verse 28 of this chapter makes clear, man can only strive to eliminate his God-consciousness for so long before the Lord will grant his desire and remove it. Nevertheless, it begins not by God hiding Himself from man, but by man turning his back on God.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” (Psalm 19:1)
Secondly, we come to God’s revelation of Himself through the witness of His Creation. God’s Natural Revelation is written across the heavens and throughout the Universe. To look upon the wonders of God’s Universe and deduce that such arose accidentally and without purpose is the height of foolishness and utter insanity. We would never look upon a beautiful Rembrandt or Monet and surmise that they came into existence without the work of the artist. We would never look at the buildings of I.M Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright and suggest for even a second that they might have been the result of random materials falling against one another in an unintentional pattern. Anyone who even hinted at such absurdities would be viewed as either joking or insane. How is it, then, acceptable “scientific reasoning” to suggest such absurdities concerning the infinite expanse of the Universe; something far beyond the complexity and beauty of architecture or fine art? Yet there are those who do exactly that. They look upon the wonders of God’s Universe and attempt to make sense of it by eliminating God from the equation. However, the very wonders they are observing and considering are the very evidences for the existence of God that they are asserting are insufficient. It is not the product of superior reasoning or a sharper intellect that leads one to conclude that God does not exist upon beholding the wonders of His Universe, but the product of a hardened heart that has pre-determined that the admission of God’s existence carries with it an implied demand for a response to one’s Creator; a response which must concede that man has a responsibility to submit to his Creator. It is not an academic difficulty which precludes a belief in God, but a moral one.
Alistair McGrath, an Oxford-educated scientist turned theologian, wrote in his book The Dawkins Delusion? (a critical response to biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion) that he “Wondered how [he and Dawkins] could draw such totally different conclusions on the basis of reflecting long and hard on substantially the same world.” (2) By all accounts, both of these men are brilliant scientific minds within very similar disciplines, yet one has concluded that the Universe testifies to God’s existence while the other has concluded the opposite. Why is this? Is the one simply more “enlightened” than the other? No. The distinction is not in the mind of the two professors, but in the heart.
God has not revealed very much concerning the characteristics of His Personality and nature through His Natural Revelation, but He has told us enough for us to know that He does exist; and if we respond to the light that He has given us, He will give us more. But if we deny the light He has shown us and harden our heart, suppressing the Truth in unrighteousness, He will give us our wish. He will only strive with our hearts for so long before He removes Himself from us. If we do not “like to retain God in our knowledge”, He will eventually oblige us and turn us over to our sinful desires (Rom. 1:28). There is evidence for God’s existence. It is all around us and within us. If we deny it, we are without excuse.
(1) “Bertrand Russell On God And Religion” (this quote is taken from the book’s preface by Al Seckel) – Prometheus Books (c) 1986
(2) Paraphrase taken from “The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine” – Inter-Varsity Press (c) 2007