On God's Revelation in Nature
I should say upfront that I don't seek an interminible theological debate with my Catholic brothers, for we are indeed brothers in Christ. But unity demands first a recognition that truth exists. Orthodox Catholics and orthodox Protestants may be the only people in America who can have an honest and civil disagreement, and it is my hope that we can better understand one another and engage in cultural cobelligerence without theological compromise. Soli Deo Gloria!
First, let me say that the church is both visible (those who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of conversion) and invisible (the church as God sees it). We cannot look into the hearts of others and view their spiritual state. This is why Paul says, “The Lord knows who are his (II Tim. 2:19).
I fully expect the Roman church to claim that it is the only visible organization in which the true church is found (I expect Protestants to reciprocate). But as Caiaphas was descended from Aaron yet was not a true priest, so Catholic bishops who are “descended” from the apostles are not true bishops in the church of Christ. As Calvin said, “The pretense of succession is vain unless their descendants conserve safe and uncorrupted the truth of Christ which they have received at their fathers’ hands, and abide in it…See what value this succession has, unless it also include a true and uninterrupted emulation on the part of their successors.”
I appreciate John’s succinct remarks concerning the Catholic doctrine of salvation. On God’s Trinitarian nature and the centrality of Christ, we agree. John writes, “the fact that the Father, in begetting the Son, embraces all of Creation in Him and that in His unity with Him, permits of no other vehicle for it's Redemption of necessity. Certainly, the Gospels are less stories about Jesus than they are an unveiling of the relations of the Divine Persons at the core of things.” Very nicely written, John. Indeed one of my favorite passages is from Colossians, where Paul writes,
13For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. 21Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[f] your evil behavior. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Christ indeed came to reconcile all things to the Father. One of the most quoted verses in Scripture says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The Greek word translated world is “kosmos,” which refers to the present world order, the whole of creation. So Jesus did not come to die “for all men,” but in order to save the entire creation. God loves not merely His people, but the order that sustains them, and thus he sends rain, for example, to the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45).
There is, however, a distinction to be made between God’s universal, common grace, and his redemptive or particular grace. God will extend external blessings even to those who are His enemies, but He does not offer eternal life to all, and certainly not those who fail to recognize His Lordship. In short, he loves the field, but not necessarily the tares, “The field is the world (kosmos), and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one” (Matt. 13:38).
I simply can’t agree with the statement that someone may be ignorant of Christ and the church while possessing a “sincerely held desire, moved by grace, to do the will of God as it might be made known to conscience.”
Let’s look at Romans 1 a bit more thoroughly, shall we?
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
The passage begins with a bold declaration of the revelation of God’s wrath from heaven. The word here does not indicate that God’s “wrath” or anger is arbitrary, capricious, or irrational. Rather, there is a reason for God’s anger. His wrath is directed and provoked by human evil and wickedness. Paul is not speaking about an anger that is a blind rage. According to the text, His anger is directed toward “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.”
“Ungodliness” here involves a posture of opposition to the majesty of God. It is conduct that is irreligious or profane. God’s wrath, in short, is directed at His enemies.
“Unrighteousness” probably is more indicative of an assault on the righteousness of God, or the moral standards that he has established.
Some commentators see these as two different types of activity. Accordingly, if we think about the Ten Commandments, where the first table deals with our relationship to God and the second table deals with our relationship to man, then “ungodliness” is something along the lines idolatry and “unrighteousness” is immorality. This is also the broader context of Romans 1, where Paul indicates very clearly that moral degeneracy flows out of a rejection of God.
It is also possible that the words “unrighteousness” and “ungodliness” are basically synonyms that express the same idea, so that God’s wrath is directed against something that is considered both ungodly and unrighteous.
Paul quickly moves to isolate the particular sin in view. It is the evil that, as verse 18 says, “suppresses” the truth. Paul’s expression here has been translated in a number of ways:
1. “holding the truth in unrighteousness”
2. “hold down the truth in unrighteousness”
3. “hinder the truth”
4. “stifling the truth”
5. “repress the truth”
What is the truth that is being held down? Paul continues,
19because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.
Paul is saying here that knowledge about God isn’t hidden, or shrouded in some kind of obscurity. Rather, that which can be known is “manifest,” or plain. So this knowledge about God is not concealed but transparent. And it is transparent because “God has shown it to them.” So if the student (sinner) does not learn, it is not because the teacher did not teach.
What is it that God has shown us and how? We read the following in Rom. 1:20:
20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,
Here Paul tells us that God’s “invisible attributes” are seen clearly and understood, and that in our understanding we have some knowledge of God. It is not clear exactly how we acquire this knowledge. Some argue that nature points beyond itself to a creator, and that by being confronted by God’s revelation in nature, we begin to understand the nature of God. Others argue that we have this knowledge because we are created in God's image. In any event, it does not really matter how we gain this knowledge about God, but that we do, and are therefore “without excuse” if we reject God. This is an important point because too often we are under the impression that God will judge sinners for rejecting Jesus. In fact, we are judged initially for rejecting the Father. It is only secondarily that if people hear about Christ and reject Him that they are punished for that.
Anyway, what Paul says here is that we cannot fall back on the excuse of ignorance. Though people are not always persuaded by evidence, it does not mean that the evidence is not sufficient. Here God has given evidence of His existence and nature, and we have suppressed that knowledge.
So it is the rejection of God that makes us morally culpable. Again this general revelation is not sufficient to convert us. That takes an initiatory act of God, but it does leave us without excuse.
What does Paul mean when he says that “they knew God?”
In various passages, Paul speaks of pagans as not knowing God:
1 Thessalonians 4
5not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God;
2 Thessalonians 1
8in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
8 But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods.
1 Corinthians 1
21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
Considering what Paul writes in Rom. 1 and what he says in these other verses, he is either contradicting himself or doesn’t mean what he wrote in some passage. It is also plausible to argue that there are different meanings for the word “know” in the NT.
Indeed, the Bible speaks of “knowing” in many ways. It can refer to an intellectual awareness; an intimate knowledge (such as personal relationships, i.e. Adam “knew his wife”), and what we would call “saving knowledge.”
It is important to understand that in this particular passage in Romans, Paul is NOT talking about a knowledge that saves. The knowledge that he is talking about is an intellectual knowledge, not a saving one. An unbeliever can have one kind of knowledge and not another. (James 2:19-You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe--and tremble!)
What Paul is discussing throughout this passage is a moral failure, not an intellectual one. Romans 1 repeatedly asserts that humans do apprehend general revelation:
19because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 28And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 32who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
So even though we are fallen, we have the ability to know who God is on some level. However, we suppress this knowledge and darkness follows. We read the following in verse 21, "because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened."
So the problem is not that we do not know God, but that we refuse to honor him. Once again this is not about a failure of knowledge, but a failure to acknowledge God. Not only do we fail to give honor, in fact the pagan becomes futile in his thinking and his heart is darkened.
It is important to note that Paul does not deny the ability of natural man to reason or even to reason correctly if free of prejudice to the facts. The problem is that our thought processes are contaminated by sin and thus we come to the facts with prejudice. But the problem is a moral one, not an intellectual one.
To summarize verses 18-21, we learn:
1. First, that God’s revelation is clear and unambiguous. The knowledge is plain (manifest) to them; God has shown it to them; is has been clearly perceived.
2. Second, we see that the knowledge gets through to its intended target. We read that “they knew God.” (v.21). So man’s problem is not that he doesn’t know God, but that he refuses to acknowledge God.
3. Third, we see that this revelation has been going on since the beginning of the world (v. 20). This is not a one-time event, but continues in a constant way.
4. Fourth, revelation comes by way of creation. God’s nature is revealed “by the things that are made.” (v. 20).
5. Fifth, we see that this revelation is sufficient to render us inexcusable.
What of those who don't seek Christ because of cultural prejudice engrained in them? What of those who live in remote areas, aren't they religious? And doesn’t their religious activity remove them from the danger of feeling the wrath of God? No, it is precisely on this point where general revelation is devastating. If Paul is right, then the practice of religion does not excuse the pagan, but compounds his guilt all the more.
22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man--and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Paul’s use of the term fools needs to be examined. Generally when the Bible speaks of a fool, it does not indicate a person with low intellignence. The term usually has to do with a religious judgment.
7The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction.
8The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way,
But the folly of fools is deceit.
23To do evil is like sport to a fool,
But a man of understanding has wisdom.
1 The fool has said in his heart,
"There is no God."
They are corrupt,
They have done abominable works,
There is none who does good.
The term can be linked to some intellectual deficiency, but again, it generally implies a spiritual shortcoming.
Paul not only declares the natural man a fool, he also calls him a hypocrite. The same one who is a fool professes to be wise. So not only is the fool a fool, he is a self-deluded fool, too.
Paul shows that the height of human foolishness is the exchange of the glory of God for idolatry. The proper word here is “exchange.” Many translations use the word change, but the context demands a stronger word. What Paul is talking about here is mutation or distortion by substituting something that is genuine for something that is completely artificial or counterfeit. So the distortion does not bring on a militant form of atheism, but a kind of religion. But rather than exonerating man from the wrath of God, this act compounds the felony by adding insult to the glory of God. So religion, in and of itself is a revolt against God. It should not be viewed as a step in the right direction, but rather an attack on the true God. According to Paul, “religion” is not the fruit of a zealous pursuit of God, but is the result of a flight from God.
So religion is a monument to man’s foolishness, and we can see the results of this in verses 24 and 25 where God responds to idolaters by abandoning them to their sin. God allows them to pursue their lusts and impurities. What started as a refusal to honor God culminates in the dishonoring of human beings.
This “exchange” also involves the substitution of a lie in place of the truth of God. This is the essence of idolatry, worshipping the creation instead of the creator. Thus the fact that people are religious does not mean that God is pleased with them. Idolatry is the ultimate insult to God. It reduces Him to the level of a creature, stripped of his divinity.
So pagans are judged for what they know, not what they don’t. If a person in a remote area or of another faith has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father.