The Wrath of God Deserved
Those ancient civilizations had some truth. Therefore, it is correct to state that the wrath of God was deserved.
Paul, in this passage (19-23), anticipates an objection. Concerning the wrath of God being revealed, someone may say, "What about the ancient heathen world? They had no revelation of God. How can people like that be expected to honor and worship God? Do such people deserve the wrath of God?" That is an old question. Are the heathen really lost? Were they responsible, those people living back there in the darkness? The apostle answers this question. He says they do deserve the wrath of God!
The key word is "because: "Because that which is known of God is manifest in them, for God manifested it unto them." (v. 19); "because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God" (v. 21).
First, "that which is known of God is manifest in them." God did what? "He showed it unto them." There are two tenses there. First is the present tense: "That which is made known of God." The verse closes with the past tense: "for God showed it to them." Verse 20 says, "The invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity, that they may be without excuse." God revealed Himself through the created universe, and every man has that revelation. His eternal power and Godhead, the fact that He is God, and has power to punish ought to be revealed to every man by looking up at the starry heavens. "They are without excuse."
That settles the question of the responsibility of those people; they had a revelation of God. Every man has the same revelation. It is the evidence of creation. When a man can look out at the created universe and fail to see the power, the Godhead, and the divinity of God, he is a man who is holding down the truth - not because he cannot see it, but because he is unrighteous. That is what Paul is talking about in relation to the ancient people. They had the truth, and if they had not held down the truth, it would have prevailed.
The second reason they deserved the wrath of God was "because that, knowing God, they glorified Him not as God." Then comes the downward trend involving seven steps. Undoubtedly in this twenty-first verse the apostle Paul was talking about a different revelation than in those other two verses. There is the revelation of creation spoken of in Psalm 19: "the heavens declare the glory of God." The heavens tell us there is a God, a God who has power, yet the heavens can never make us "know" God. We can never know God in the actual sense of the word without a special revelation. Paul says in this twenty-first verse that these people not only knew about God, but they knew Him. They could not know God without a revelation. God apparently revealed Himself to man back there in a special way, before the Word of God was given. Archaeology has discovered in the records that there are traces of an original, primeval revelation. We know that God revealed Himself to Adam and to Noah and his sons. There may have been others.
These ancient people took a path of seven steps downward:
1. They knew God, but refused to honor Him. "Knowing God, the glorified him not as God."
2. They were not thankful for God's goodness to them, "Neither gave thanks."
3. They began speculating foolishly. "Became vain in their reasonings."
4. Their minds became senseless and darkened. "Their senseless heart was darkened."
5. They thought they were wise. "Professing themselves to be wise."
6. In reality, they had become very foolish. "They became fools."
7. Instead of worshiping the eternal God, they preferred idols patterned after mortal man. "They changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man."
That is total descent. They knew God, but when they arrived at the bottom, they were worshiping sticks and stones, carved out in the shape of animals and "creeping things." Compare the theory of evolution with this picture. As a pattern of development, evolutionary theory permeates everything today, so of course it has been applied in the realm of religion. Evolutionists say religion developed in a process like this: When man was primitive (when he had graduated from the ape tribe, lost his tail, quit climbing trees), he felt an impulse to worship something, so he took a stick, carved out an image, and began to worship that. That was the first step. As his intellectual powers grew, he began to make moral distinctions, saying, "This is right, and that is wrong." The next step in his reasoning process was to realize that the rain and the seasons must come from one or more superhuman beings and so he gave thanks to the gods for their gifts. From that point he rose to the conception of the true God and became a monotheist.
Paul's description of man's religious development does not follow the evolutionary order. His arrangement is the reverse, going from monotheism to idolatry. Man did not begin with the worship of sticks. Archaeology confirms that man began with monotheism and later degenerated. This is therefore, an accurate, scientific statement of Paul's.
In Isaiah, God exposes the foolishness of idolatry. He says, "The smith maketh an axe, and worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with his strong arm; yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth; he drinketh no water and is faint. The carpenter ... shapeth it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man ... he planteth a fir tree, and the rain doth nourish it" (Isaiah 44:12-14). Who gives the rain? Who gives him his strength? Who gave him the water he needed to drink while he was making his idol? Isn't that wonderful irony? "Then shall it be for a man to burn; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it and baketh bread" (Isaiah 44:15). He couldn't bake his bread if God didn't give him wood. "Then he maketh a ... graven image; he falleth down in front of it." (Isaiah 44:17).
The Wrath of God Inflicted
How did God inflict His wrath on the ancient heathen world? "Wherefore God gave them up." God stayed with them all the way as they descended into the pit, until they come to the point where they carved out wood and stones and made idols and worshiped them. Then God surrendered them! That is the key phrase of this passage: verse 24 - "God gave them up"; verse 26 - "God gave them up"; verse 28 - "God gave them up." All three verses are alike: "God gave them up!" The number three signified completeness. When these folks had turned to idols, God completely abandoned them to their own ways!
First of all, "Gad gave them up to the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness." They became depraved in heart when God gave them up. First it is the heart, then it is the body. Next, God gave them up to a reprobate mind." A depraved heart, a depraved body, a depraved mind. The word "reprobate" means "tested and found to be no good" - like a piece of tested steel in a machine shop. God tested man and gave him up. Men vied with one another to invent new forms of vice in the days of Paul.
There you have the list. You may ask this question: "Is every man in the world guilty of those things?" No, not in outward act. The best man on earth may never do outwardly one thing in this catalog of sins, but let him turn his back on God! Someday every one of these things would develop in that man's life, for it is there in germ and needs only the proper environment to come out. A drunkard went reeling along the street, and an onlooker said, "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." Our hearts are all the same. It is only because God has not given us up that we are here today.
Some people have asked, "What is the wrath of God like?" The wrath of God inflicted, whatever else it includes, includes one thing: abandonment. If you can look at the world when God removes all His restraining forces and His love, and lets sinners wander in their sins - that is hell; that is the wrath of God! No man can say this response of God is not righteous. Even as they refused to know God, God gave them up.
Notice the final charge: "Who knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practice them." The word "consent" may be translated "applaud." People not only do these things, but they applaud others who do them. There is one great lesson here: evil (sin) is progressive and you cannot stop it, once it is started.
Some people ask, "Why should I go to church Sunday morning to worship God?" Why should we come here to thank God for the things we have received during the week? "Neither give thanks" is one of the first steps in declension. If we keep close to Him, if we worship His as God, if we have a thankful heart, He keeps us from taking the plunge such as these men took.
~Alva J. McClain~
(continued with # 19 - "The Moral World Under Sentence of Condemnation")