“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.” (Romans 1:21)
It is the opinion of the average college professor that mankind is steadily progressing forward and upward. University students are taught by the Biology department that man is the most sophisticated product (thus far) of an Evolutionary process that goes back billions of year. They teach that man himself has continued to evolve, as “vestigial organs” such as the appendix and tonsils allegedly attest. The Philosophy department assures students that man has developed a more and more useful, efficient, and beneficial sense of morality throughout history; produced through trial and error, experimentation, and refined in order to best serve the interests of society as a whole. All of the other departments concur that man has become progressively smarter, wiser, and much more intelligent than our less enlightened ancestors. In short, the consensus is that man is climbing ever-upward in the journey to reach his potential.
All of these notions sound really nice within the peaceful walls of the hallowed grounds of Academia, but a quick glance at the outside world betrays the fact that these ideas don’t seem to really fit the evidence. That the body of knowledge possessed by mankind as a whole has grown in many ways, there is no doubt. Technological advances have increased the conveniences of modern life, even in the last century, exponentially. The available appliances, machines, and technologies at the dawn of the 21st Century are indescribably superior to what our great-grandparents used at the dawning of the 20th. But has man improved spiritually throughout the course of history? What about morally? Is man any wiser than he was a hundred, a thousand, three thousand years ago?
Contrary to the speculations of modern thought, the Bible makes it clear that, not only has man not evolved and been climbing ever-upward, he has actually been on a downward spiral since the Garden of Eden. Man is not evolving at all, but rather devolving. Man, as a whole, has been degenerating ever since he fell through the sin of Adam (Genesis 3). Man did not start out atheistic, gradually moving into paganism and polytheism, until he eventually developed monotheism. The process is actually reversed. Humanity began with an awareness and consciousness of God, and knew Him as He truly is. It is interesting to note all of the people in the Book of Genesis who seemed to have known about God, even though we are never told how they learned about Him (e.g., Gen. 14:18-19, 20:3-4, 41:38-39). It isn’t until several centuries later that a proud Pharaoh proclaims to Moses, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).
So what caused man to “forget” about God and lose his awareness of his Creator? He became “vain in his imaginations and his foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). When man knew God, he did not glorify God neither was he thankful. Man turned his back on the living God and with a proud and ungrateful heart sought to live his life apart from the Lord. His mind became corrupted and he lost his natural ability to know the truth about his Creator and his own origins and purpose. He “professed himself to be wise and became a fool” (v. 22). In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, the Apostle Paul shows the distinction between what God says is true wisdom and what man calls “wisdom.” He goes on to say that the natural, unsaved man cannot receive the things of God because they are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14). Man feels that the things of God are foolishness while God declares that the “wisdom” of man is foolishness. Paul’s descriptions of the arrogant, philosophical minds of the Greek world of his day are equally valid for the arrogant, anthropocentric, “scientific” minds of our own.
God Gave Them Up
Three times in the remainder of the First Chapter of Romans we are told that God “gave them up/over” (v. 24, 26, 28). What a sad and terrible fate! Man has sought to rid himself of the knowledge, awareness, and presence of God in his life to the point that God has granted him his wish. Man has followed every latent wicked desire and fantasy that his depraved heart could manufacture and the Lord has allowed him to experience many of the consequences of these actions. God’s wrath is being revealed from Heaven (Rom. 1:18) against these sinful behaviors and one does not need to look very far to see the reality of this. A turning away from God invariably results in a licentious and degraded existence and the descriptions of the wanton depravity that mankind has sunken into in the balance of this chapter is both horrific and all-too veracious. The laundry list of iniquities characteristic of the soul apart from God listed in Verses 24-31 is not exclusive to any race, creed, or nation; for it has infected the whole of humanity like a cancer, both civilized and savage, on every continent that humanity has inhabited. It is with this in mind that I find it entirely unnecessary to develop any of those verses any further nor to comment on any of them in-depth. The atrocities that result from man’s rebellious departure from God are never magnified in the Word of God, nor is it prudent for us to dignify them by expounding on them at any length. Suffice it to say that we have herein all of the ugliness, all of the wickedness, all of the perversion and deviance that man will produce when left to his own devices. There is no value in focusing on any one of these sinful behaviors above another; for the purpose of this passage is not to illuminate the sins of certain people, but all the sins of mankind.
Yet even so, it would benefit all of us to carefully read through this list before we are too quick to turn away in disgust. Are not many of these abominations prevalent among those who frequent the church sanctuary as well as those who do not? It is not only the drunkard who envies, maligns, and deceives; but often the parishioner, as well. And a group more guilty of “whisperings” than some church congregants, one could scarcely find. Are not certain denominations within Christianity dangerously close to “worshipping the creature more than the Creator” in their veneration of mere human beings nearly to the point of deification? Every one of us can find themselves within these verses, at one point or another. And for the Christian, we must realize that, apart from the grace of God through Christ, our fate would be no different from anyone else’s. The description in Romans 1 of the heart in rebellion against God bears not only an uncanny resemblance to the primitive man in the wilds of Africa or Australia, but to the civilized man living in London, Stockholm, or New York City.
One particular statement stands out more than any other in this entire passage. Right in the midst of giving this terrible downward progression of sinful man, Paul says of God the Creator: “Who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 1:25). Paul puts himself shoulder to shoulder with the very wicked sinners he is describing. Knowing that he himself was at one time a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13) before God saved him, Paul patiently wades through this mire of filth in order to lay out the Message of the Gospel. Yet even in the muck and mud of man’s degradation, even while describing those who want absolutely nothing to do with God and would rather worship cattle and snakes than the living God, Paul looks up and praises the Lord of Heaven. What a beautiful ray of light in a dark and dreary chasm. Paul knows that save for the grace of God, there, too, would he remain. And so would we.