NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XVIII)
Paul is not shy in revealing those things that can bring on condemnation and punishment. The first is godlessness. The Greek word Paul uses here, asebeia, means, “lacking in something.” It comes from a root word that defines, “being destitute of reverential awe.” And since the thing lacking relates to God, it refers to the total lack of reverence and respect for anything having to do with God. That includes His existence, power, rulership, laws, will, and purpose. This then spawns irreverence and disrespect for His Word. But even more sinister is that it disregards any need for God’s love, mercy, grace, and kindness, because no use is seen for them. Man determines his own destiny, therefore, God is given no say or sway over what man wants to do or be.
The second reason for condemnation and punishment is immorality. This means not having the ethics or morals to guide a person’s thoughts, intentions, and deeds. The Greek word that Paul uses suggests having no moral qualities, which leads to being evil in character. So it is easy to understand why Paul can say that such people refuse to accept the truth about their condition even though it has been made undeniably clear to them. It is like a person standing in a court of law, being shown a videotape of them actually committing a crime, yet refusing to accept it as any incriminating evidence of their desire or intent against the law.
Jesus used His own parable to illustrate such people when He told this story about servants who were told to always be ready to open the door when their master returned, even if it meant sleeping by the door. So His disciples asked what would happen to the servant who disregarded those orders. Jesus said: “That servant knew what his master wanted him to do. But he did not make himself ready or try to do what his master wanted, that servant will be punished severely!”1
When Nicodemus came to get instructions from Jesus on the Kingdom of Heaven, John preached a sermon about that encounter and said: “People who believe in God’s Son are not judged guilty. But people who do not believe are already judged, because they have not believed in God’s only Son. They are judged by this fact: The light has come into the world. But they did not want light. They wanted darkness, because they were doing evil things. Everyone who does evil hates the light. They will not come to the light, because the light will expose all the bad things they have done.”2
The apostle Paul encountered this kind of conviction when he stood before Governor Felix and told him about what it means to believe in Jesus being the Christ. Luke tells us: “Felix became afraid when Paul spoke about things like doing right, self-control, and the judgment that will come in the future. He said, ‘Go away now. When I have more time, I will call for you.’”3 Later Paul would write the believers in Thessalonica: “The Man of Evil will use every kind of immorality to fool those who are lost. They are lost because they refused to love the truth and be saved.”4 It is like a person who sees a sign that says, “Bridge Out!” and yet keeps on driving because they believe the sign was put there to keep them from having the pleasure of going the route they want to take. Or, when they see a, “Do Not Enter” sign. They see this as a ploy to make them take a longer route instead of a shorter and faster route to their intended destination. To use the title of a popular song years ago, they want to sing, “I did it my way.” The apostle John must have felt a certain sense of frustration when he had to write these words about the Living Word: “He came to the world that was His own. But His own people refused to accept Him.”5
One of the early patriarchs of the eastern Greek church has this to say: “Generally speaking there are two main types of sin—discord with God and discord with one’s neighbor. Paul mentions them both, putting discord with God first because it is the greater sin, and calling it ‘ungodliness.’ He then mentions the second kind of discord, the one with one’s neighbor, calling it ‘unethical behavior.’ He even states that our entire race has rightly come under judgment, saying that they have suppressed the truth in unethical behavior. Nor can they claim to be ignorant, for knowing the truth, they perverted it.… And outlining their sins, Paul lists the one against God first, saying that they had clear and plain knowledge about God because God had revealed Himself to them.”6
And early church commentator Ambrosiaster adds this: “The knowledge of God is plain from the structure of the world. For God, who by nature is invisible, may be known even from things which are visible. For His work is made in such a way that it reveals its Maker by its very visibility, so that what is concealed may be known by looking at what is revealed.7 This is revealed so that everyone might believe that He is God, who made this cosmos, which was impossible for anyone else to do.”8
Reformer John Calvin comments on what mankind should know about God: “Paul thus designates what would be wise of us to know about God; and he means all that belongs to the setting forth of the glory of the Lord, or…, whatever ought to move and excite us to glorify God. And by this expression he intimates, that God in His greatness can by no means be fully comprehended by us, and that there are certain limits within which men ought to confine themselves, inasmuch as God accommodates to our small capacities what He testifies of Himself. Insane then are all they who seek to know by themselves what God is: for the Spirit, the Teacher of perfect wisdom, does not in vain invite our attention to what may be known; and by what means this is known, He immediately explains. By saying, that God has made it manifest, he [Paul] means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking at so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author Himself.”9
H. A. Ironside makes another point: “The heathens are without excuse. Paganism and idolatry are not steps in human evolution as man advances from slime to divinity. Heathenism is a declension, not an upward reach. The great pagan nations once knew more than they do now. The knowledge of God brought through the flood was disseminated throughout the ancient world. Back of all the great idolatrous systems is pure monotheism. But men could not stand this intimate knowledge of God for it made them uncomfortable in their sins; so a host of lesser deities and divinities were invented as go-betweens, and eventually the knowledge of the true God was entirely lost. But even today creation is His constant witness: ‘That which may be known of God is manifest to them; for God has showed it to them.’ This orderly universe with its succession of the seasons and the mathematical accuracy of the movements of the heavenly bodies bears testimony to the Divine Mind. The stars in their courses proclaim the great Creator’s power.”10
As far as how God’s indignation is revealed, Charles Hodge has this to say: “A thing is said to be revealed, when it becomes known from its effects. It is thus that the thoughts of the heart, the arm of the Lord, and wrath of God are said to be ‘revealed.’ It is not necessary therefore to infer from the use of this word, that the apostle meant to intimate that the purpose of God to punish sin was made known by any special revelation. That purpose is manifested in various ways; by the actual punishment of sin, by the inherent tendency of moral evil to produce misery, by the voice of conscience. Nor do the words ‘from heaven’ imply any extraordinary mode of communication. They are added because God dwells in heaven whence all exhibitions of His character and purposes are said to proceed. It is however implied in the whole form of expression, that this revelation is clear and certain. Men know the righteous judgment of God; they know that those who commit sin are worthy of death. As this is an ultimate truth, existing in every man’s consciousness, it is properly assumed, and made the basis of the apostle’s argument.”11
Adam Clarke shares important thoughts: “Dr. John Taylor of Norwich12 paraphrases this and the following verse thus: “Although the Gentiles had no written revelation, yet what may be known of God is everywhere manifest among them, God having made a clear discovery of Himself to them. For His being and perfections, invisible to our bodily eyes, have been, ever since the creation of the world, evident to be seen, if attentively considered, in the visible beauty, order, and operations observable in the constitution and parts of the universe; especially His eternal power and universal dominion and providence: so that they cannot plead ignorance in excuse of their idolatry and wickedness.”13
Bible scholar John Stott presents an interesting dialogue to explain Paul’s reasoning in these verses:
[Q: Why do you feel so assured about your mission, Paul?]
Paul: Because I am not ashamed of the gospel (v. 16a).
Q: Why not, Paul?
Paul: Because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (v. 16b).
Q: How so, Paul?
Paul: Because in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, that is, God’s way of justifying sinners (v. 17).
Q: But why is this necessary, Paul?
Paul: Because the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (v. 18).
Q: But how have people suppressed the truth, Paul?
Paul: Because what may be known about God is plain to them … For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen … (vv. 19–20).14
1 Luke 12:47
2 John 3:18-20
3 Acts of the Apostles 24:25
4 2 Thessalonians 2:10
5 John 1:11
6 Gennadius of Constantinople: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 This is a philosophical argument that while sometimes the whole cannot be seen, there is enough revealed to identify the whole truth.
8 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit
9 John Calvin: Romans 1:19
10 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.
12 Dr. John Taylor of Norwich, a British Hebrew scholar and theologian in, “A Paraphrase with Notes on the Epistle to the Romans, Fourth Edition, Printed for J. Rivington, et. al., London, 1749, p. 160
13 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.
14 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.