18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-20)
I’ve always had some difficulty with these verses, not at God’s wrath over sin, or that people had turned away from him, or that some suppress the truth, but with the final phrase – so that men are without excuse. Whenever I’ve been asked in an Alpha or Christianity Explored group a questions like ‘what about the lost tribe in the Amazon that has never heard of Jesus, ‘ I’ve tended to turn to this verse. God gives everyone enough knowledge so that they can turn to, or reject, him. However, I always felt I was fudging the issue a little.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ excellent expositions on Romans 1 opens up these verses well. He, of courses brings up the general revelation of God (as opposed to the special revelation given to 1st Century Jews and Christians through Jesus and the Holy Spirit). He claims that what can be known about God ‘from what has been made’ is not a saving knowledge of God, as this is only made through the Spirit (compare 1 Cor 2:6-16) but a general knowledge of what God is like – his majesty, glory, justice, dominion, greatness and even his divinity.
How can this be known? Paul tells us that is it from what has been made – from creation which is ‘the manifestation of the handiwork of God’. Lloyd-Jones argues that there are three elements to this. The first is wonder at the complexity of creation. We not only seen the beauty of the world and the order behind it but we can marvel at the mind that has put it all together. How is it, Lloyd-Jones asks, that something as complex and an eye can just spring (or evolve) out of a naturally occurring chance? how and why did it develop? We either say that all of it is just an accident (as many do) or we are forced to consider the mind and guiding hand behind it.
We also consider the providence of creation. Everything has it’s place, is provided for, and requires everything else around it to sustain it. He also argues from the history of creation – that is, even secular history seem the cycle through the events without really learning much. He claims that history cycles through the events and thoughts of Gen 1-11. I haven’t really looked into this last point yet.
He also mentions two other important things which point to a knowledge of God. First, the fact that everyone has a conscience – an innate sense of right or wrong and the desire to see justice served for those things that fail the conscience. Second, he mentions that every people-group everywhere, no matter how primitive or complex has an innate knowledge of some sort of supreme being. I’m sure he would see this as an argument from creation too – why would such an innate knowledge be present (especially if the world was just an accident)
So Lloyd-Jones argues from Romans that God can be known from creation but not in any saving sense. If this is true, he goes on to say that this knowledge
it is not enough to save a man bit is enough to render a man inexcusable for his godlessness and sinfulness. (p374)
Man is without excuse because, although he has this knowledge, he suppresses it and rallies against it (v18). He fails to follow his own conscience and is therefore in breach of it. He fails to submit himself fully to the God who can be seen through all that has been made.
It is worth noting that Paul was writing these verses about the Pagans and Jews of the day. The pagans, he said are without excuse. How much more the Jews who had God’s special revelation, or those who had seen and talked with Jesus. How much more again are all those today who have the benefit of a Christian traditions, Christian teaching and the whole of the Old and New Testaments revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. All are without excuse and are stuck in their unrighteousness (state of living apart from God) and ungodliness (failure to acknowledge God).
This is where Paul’s previous verses are so wonderful. Men are without excuse but..
17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Rom 1:17)
The gospel offers hope to this man who rallies against God and is stuck in his unrighteousness and it is the hope which comes by faith in the gospel.
Of course, we know that all who turn to Jesus are brought by the Holy Spirit. So what about that question about our tribal friends in the Amazon. God does bring them enough knowledge of their sinfulness to be able to seek Him who is revealed in creation – enough knowledge not to ignore God. And the Holy Spirit will bring a softening of their hearts and willingness to turn to God.