Romans 1:18-28 by Robert Dean

The Effect of Sin on Knowledge
Romans 1:18–28
Romans Lesson #013
March 31, 2011

In this passage, verses 18-23, we have one of four or five of the most significant passages in the Scripture that talk about the nature of man. There are other passages that talk about sin and the specifics of sin but this passage talks about the consequences of sin on human beings, on who we are as creatures in the image of God, and specifically on our thought processes. It is important to understand this because as we look at this passage and see the descriptions that are there in vv. 18-23, there are implications that we can then take from this text that relate to understanding how to communicate the gospel to someone who isn’t saved, because they are in the position of being spiritually dead and spiritually unable to understand fully the Word of God.

There is a lot of controversy over this. There is a very strong Calvinist position on these verses that flows from their theology called total inability. In their view on the doctrines of salvation they focus on five key principles and these came out of a theological synod in Holland about the same time as the publication of the King James Bible. Just after that in 1616 there was a synod that was held among the Dutch Reformed churches because of a controversy that occurred due to the teaching of some of the professors that took the teaching on free will too far in one direction. One of the professors who had died by the time they had this synod was Jacob Arminius, from whom we get the term Arminianism. Arminians in their full extreme form don’t believe that Adam’s sin really affected anybody else, that each person is born in the same unadulterated, uncorrupted state that Adam was created, and so every individual makes a decision on their own life and which way they will go. So theoretically people can live their life sinlessly. They would say that no one does but that theoretically they could. They believe that God’s choice is totally dependent upon human choice, that God’s movement, God’s wooing of the unbeliever, is completely resistible, because the individual is really in charge and not God. It is the polar opposite of strong 5-point Calvinism. We would be somewhere in between but probably on the light or moderate Calvinist side, although we don’t like to use those terms because in terms of the five points of Calvinism we would redefine all of them. But none of them would be redefined in the way that Arminians define them.

So the student of Arminius who was teaching at the time was the one who was actually up on charges. The Arminians brought together five points, what they called their remonstrance, and in response to their five points the Calvinists had five counter-remonstrances—usually referred to by the acronym TULIP. Some people have somewhat facetiously said that you either have TULIP theology or DAISY theology. DAISY theology (Arminianism) is where you set out to talk about God: does He love me? He loves me today; He loves me not. He loves me today; He loves me not. Because in Arminianism you can lose your salvation; you can choose not to be saved anymore. So there is no eternal security.   

In Calvinism there is total inability, which means man can’t do anything. And they always stress this emphasis on man is spiritually dead, and they miss the boat there. Spiritual death doesn’t mean that he is non-existent; spiritual death means that we are separated from God and we don’t have a spiritual life or operation of our spiritual life in relation to God. It is non-operable; it doesn’t mean that the unbeliever can’t think, can’t understand some things to a limited degree. Then there unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance. Those five points make up what is considered to be Calvinism—high Calvinism. The term “hyper-Calvinism” is actually a technical theological term. It emphasizes the sovereignty of God in an extreme way and they go beyond high Calvinism. A hyper-Calvinist believed that those whom God elected would be saved. You didn’t need to tell them the gospel because if God chose them He would save them without any help from us. That was their view.

But all of this relates to understanding the impact of sin on man’s intellectual abilities, his ability to understand truth after the fall. It is important to understand this because if we are talking to somebody who is an unbeliever and they are spiritually dead in the sense of high Calvinism (total inability) they really can’t understand and won’t ever understand anything we are saying unless they the elect. God the Holy Spirit won’t even make it clear to them. They are not the elect and so He is not going to be moving upon them in any resistible manner, and if you go to the extreme of hyper-Calvinism it also lends itself to a lot of rationalization that occurs: well, if God wants them to be saved they will be saved, we’ll just let somebody else who is a little better at it than me witness to them. So there is a minimizing of human responsibility because they put so much emphasis on God’s sovereignty. As a result when they come to passages like this and they talk about, for example, Romans 1:18 NASB “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” they take that last clause (and it can be taken a number of different ways grammatically) as being a gnomic or universal truth, i.e. that all men suppress all truth at all times. Therefore the unbeliever can’t even exercise positive volition to God in a non-meritorious manner.

It is also important to understand the nature of man and the nature of the unbeliever’s ability to understand and what he is capable of on his own, as well as what the Holy Spirit does. Obviously the Holy Spirit works on the understanding of the unbeliever in order to understand the Word but we would not agree that He does so in an irresistible manner, as Calvinism teaches.

Romans is all about righteousness. That is what salvation is: God gives us righteousness. Romans is in some sense a defense of the righteousness of God in light of the fact of all of the things that happen in history, the things that happen in terms of individuals’ lives, and how can God hold people accountable when they have never heard anything about the Old Testament or anything about Jesus? How can God bring condemnation upon the unsaved who never heard the name of Jesus? Romans answers that by one of the most brilliant explanations of the process of justification and the spiritual life and the implications of it. That is what Paul develops here. For in it {the} righteousness of God is revealed from faith [Justification] to faith [Sanctification]; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS [Justified by faith] {man} SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

Now Paul is going to explain that so that we can understand the implications of what he has just said. Romans 1:18 NASB “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” The contrast is between the righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Twice we have the use of the negative here of unrighteousness, and we have this emphasis on suppressing the truth, that there is from Paul’s perspective one truth. There is an absolute universal truth, we are not left to just sort of guess our way or fell our way blindly through the room where everybody’s truth is ok, whatever works for you, etc. There are a lot of inconsistencies in that position. When you have destroyed reason—that came out of the enlightenment—and you have destroyed knowledge, the possibility of objective knowledge which is basically what happened in the 19th century, then you are only left with skepticism and despair. If you don’t know truth then you can’t answer any questions and life is meaningless. People can’t live that way and so then they leap into some sort of mysticism where they just conjure up their own answers, because that is what works for them; because the alternative is despair, gloom and meaningless life. 

Romans 1:19 NASB “because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” Even inside the fallen soul Paul says that something may be known about God within every single human being. And God has shown it to them, and that is the external evidence of God. There is a resonance that occurs within every single person. When they look on God’s creation there is something that vibrates, for lack of a better term, something that resonates within the soul so that they know. They know internally, first of all, that God exists. Then God gives evidence of His existence throughout every detail of the creation. Everything shows something about God’s power and God’s character.

Romans 1:20 NASB “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” So by looking at what God has made they can understand certain things about God’s character: “so that they are without excuse.” This is the answer to that question of the ages: what about those who have never heard. They’ve seen enough in the universe to know God exists. That is where volition enters in. At that time they could desire to know more about God or not to know more about God. That volition is not meritorious; it is not the cause of anything. And they can still suppress a lot of truth because we still do that—even as believers.

2 Corinthians 4:3, 4 NASB “And even if our gospel is veiled [If it is veiled it is not invisible], it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Here’s a question to the hyper-Calvinists, to anybody who takes that first T in TULIP the way a Calvinist does—total inability: If spiritual death means man is unable and incapable, apart from any movement of the Holy Spirit, of having any perception whatsoever of the existence of God (because he has suppressed it in unrighteousness) or any perception of the truth of the gospel, why did Satan have to blind their minds? Satan has to blind their minds because there are still certain capabilities of the fallen mind to understand the existence of God and to want to know more. It is not soteriological knowledge but it is knowledge that gives man an opportunity to choose to know more or less. The implication of 2 Corinthians 4:4 is that fallen man can know; he has some light available. It’s not much; it is not going to get him saved; it is not going to give the content of the gospel, but he does have a certain amount of light so that he does know that God exists.

There are unbelievers who can give the gospel as good as any believer, but they don’t really understand it. They understand it in a certain academic sense and they probably know more about the gospel than a lot of Christians do; but they can’t really put two and two together spiritually, that ultimately comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. So there is a measure of understanding on the part of the unbeliever, but what he is doing is suppressing that truth. He is in rebellion, he is rejecting the authority of God because he says I don’t like what God says. God defines truth; I don’t like it, I want to create my own truth.

The average person is really concerned about how to make decisions about the details of life. How are we to behave? That is a question that relates to ethics. We would refer to it perhaps as spirituality, but that is the realm where this takes place. How is a human being supposed to behave? In marriage, in family, what is the role of husbands and wives, who does what and is responsible for what? What is the role of parents? What are the limitations of the role of parents? What is the extent of their responsibility? What about educating their children? What about the role of schools? What about politics? Who is right and who is wrong? Where do we draw all these decisions? All that has to do with just the basic, practical decision making we have in life. Economics: how should we spend our money?

To answer ethical questions it really presupposes that we have answered the question: how do we know what is right? We have a question of knowledge here. How do we know it is true? How do we know there is truth? The very fact that we talk about it implies that there is truth. It is amazing the way God structured vocabulary and communication, that when we talk about something, anything—a tree, a lazy-boy recliner—it can’t mean anything else, it has limitations to what that word means. To be able to communicate even at the most primitive level presupposes that there are absolutes, that there are specific set meanings that can’t be changed and aren’t going to evolve over time. Saying the sky is blue doesn’t in five or six years mean the sky is red. When we look at epistemology we are concerned about truth claims but as soon as we imply those ideas of truth in right and wrong that also implies accountability and responsibility and a response to authority. If somebody says this is the right thing to do, this is true, that is where it transitions to ethics. There is an authority response at that point. Well who is the authority? Who is the source of truth? Where do we get this idea of truth? That takes us to the next question: how do we know what the ultimate authority in life is? How do we know if there is a God—capital G or lower case g?

Then the question which is the realm of epistemology—which is, how do we know anything?—to the question of metaphysics, which is the question of existence. There we have to answer the question: is there something or is there nothing? We can’t really say that there is nothing, so there is something and where did the something come from? Did it come from something that was impersonal and just material, or did it come from something that was personal? What do these words personal and impersonal mean? When we have the Bible we have the authoritative information from God who created everything to tell us, to give us the answers. But most people don’t have the Bible and are trying to figure this out. They come up with different things such as arguments for the existence of God and philosophy and other things of that nature.   

Once we answer the question, is there something to exist, then that is going to necessarily impact our understanding of knowledge, where knowledge comes from, and where truth comes from and how we are going to define truth. When we are looking at these types of questions ultimately we are asking the question: is there real meaning and order and structure to the universe or not. That is basically the question that is asked. People may not come right out and say it that way but that is what they are asking. To bring it down to a more basic level it is the question: does my life have meaning and value or not? When we get it down there, there are really only two answers everything can boil down to. The first is that there is really no logical, rational answer to that question. We just don’t know. That is depressing. If we are consistent with that answer then what we must conclude is that existence is meaningless, that everything is governed by pure random actions. There is no purpose, meaning or real cause and effect in relationship. Nobody can live like that though. If everything is random and pure chance and life is meaningless then why does it matter? They can’t live in a way that is consistent with their basic assumption about life.

The only other answer is that life has some meaning and value. If it does, how much? If life has real meaning and value and purpose then we need to define that.

As believers what this passage tells us is that whenever we are talking to an unbeliever we don’t have to prove the existence of God. We may have to resurrect their suppressed knowledge of the existence of God but we don’t have to ultimately prove it. There is something inside of them that when we start talking about it they are just trying to keep God like a jack-in-the-box ready to pop out, and are just trying to stuff Him back down.   

Romans 1:20 has some critical vocabulary: “clearly seen” is the Greek word KATHORAO which means to see or perceive thoroughly. So His attributes are clearly seen by everybody. Fallen men clearly see it. That seems to argue against that total inability concept that is in Reformed thinking. Then “understood,” a verb NOEO which is based on the noun NOUS which has to do with thought, so these are clearly words of perception, of understanding and gaining insight into something. There is real true knowledge about God and His being, at least enough to where every human being can be held accountable. 

Romans 1:21 NASB “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” What is interesting is that all through these verses there are about ten words that are related to knowledge. The word here, “knew,” is GINOSKO, a word that conveys understanding, comprehension, perception. There is clear understanding and knowledge of the existence of God and the rejected it, it was a volitional decision. Arrogance and ingratitude always go hand in hand. The word “futile” is the Greek word MATAIOS, which means something is rendered futile and made worthless. It is in the passive voice which indicates that something acts upon their thinking to make it worthless. What is it that acts upon their thinking? When they suppress truth the result of that is that their thought processes, their ability to understand truth and to reason truly is gone. So their rational system is designed to suppress truth, not to get to truth. No matter how much they talk about finding truth they are trying to suppress it.

The word “speculations” is the Greek word DIALOGISMOS from which we get our word dialog, and the basic meaning in Greek was the same as it is in English. It had to do with a conversation. But in the world of philosophy they used the word to express this intellectual, rational conversation because they understood that while you were trying to understand the nature of reality and express that through your vocabulary what underlies every sentence is a system of logic. Just the very structure of grammar is a logical structure. So in philosophy they understood the DIALOGISMOS was the rational foundation of logical, coherent conversation and thought. What Paul is saying here is that as a result of suppressing truth our thought processes, not just the content of our thought but our reasoning processes, become corrupted as a result of truth suppression.

The words “foolish hearts” is ASUNETOS which means senseless or foolish; “hearts” is KARDIA, the thinking part of the soul; “darkened,” as a result, not of sin in terms of their fallen state but as a result of suppression of truth. The more truth suppression there is the more the understanding becomes darkened.    

The result: Romans 1:22 NASB “Professing to be wise, they became fools.” How many times have we been impressed by the academic credentials of somebody who is completely wrong? God says they are fools because their starting point is the assumption that there is no God, and the result is foolishness no matter how erudite they are. It is foolishness because is starts from the wrong starting point. So the question that we have to ask coming out of this is, what is man’s basic problem? If we are going to talk to an unbeliever what is the basic problem we have to deal with? If it is intellectual we need to give them sophisticated arguments for the existence of God and the truth of the Scripture. If it is social we need to socialize people and come up with social solutions and restructure society so that they can come to know the truth. If it is education then we need to solve the education problem. But what Romans is saying is it is not intellectual, social or education, it is spiritual. They have rejected God; they are truth suppressors.

This is the same thing we see in Ephesians 4:17 NASB “Eph 4:17   So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind.” Paul is using nous here for mind and MATAIOTES for futility. [18] “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” So we see that there is a volition that takes place there that rejects God and that sets a course of action that darkens the thinking.