NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XIX)
Verse 20: Since the creation of the universe His invisible qualities – both His eternal power and His divine nature – have been clearly evident, because they can be understood from what He has created. Therefore, they have no excuse.
Paul now argues against those who might claim innocence by virtue of ignorance. In other words, I can’t see God so why should I believe He exists. It is equal to a person looking at a beautiful portrait and saying: I can’t believe a living being painted this, or watch a complex machine operate and say I don’t believe someone put this together, it formed all by itself.
Tertullian, one of the early church’s theologians, reveals his thinking our senses: “The objects which are touched by the mind are of a higher nature since they are more spiritual than those which are grasped by the senses. Since these are corporeal, any superiority they may display lies only in the ‘objects – e.g., as lofty ones contrasted with humble – [those], not in the ‘faculties’ of the intellect over against those in the] senses. For how can the intellect be considered sovereign above the senses, when it is these which educate it for the discovery of various truths? It is a fact that these truths are learned by means of palpable forms; in other words, invisible things are discovered by the help of visible ones, even as the apostle says [here] in his epistle.”1
David was impressed to the point of wondering why God would be interested in any person who was not interested in Him.2 Yet, Jesus said that because of God’s love and mercy: “He lets the sun rise for all people, whether they are good or bad. He sends rain to those who do right and to those who do wrong.”3 By doing this, God shows Himself to be a caring, benevolent deity. Yet, says Paul, those who refused to believe chose not to give God the honor, praise, and the acknowledgment He deserves.
Paul exclaimed to young Timothy: “Honor and glory to the King who rules forever. He cannot be destroyed and cannot be seen. Honor and glory forever and ever to the only God. Amen.”4 The writer of Hebrews said, this faith in the unseen, because of what was seen, affected Moses to the point where: “Moses left Egypt because he had faith. He was not afraid of Pharaoh’s anger. He continued strong as if he could see the God no one can see.”5 So why don’t these doubters see the truth in Isaiah’s challenge: “Look up to the skies. Who created all those stars? Who created all those “armies” in the sky? Who knows every star by name? He is very strong and powerful, so not one of these stars has ever gone missing.”6
One early church theologian makes this point: “The human mind, learning to know the hidden things from those which are manifest, may consider in spirit the greatness of the Maker from the greatness of His works, which it sees with the eyes of the mind.”7 Then, another early church scholar sees how God’s creation serves as a training tool for the soul: “You will find that the world was not devised at random or for no purpose, but to contribute to some useful end and to the great advantage of all beings. It is truly a training place for rational souls and a school for attaining the knowledge of God. Through visible and perceptible objects it provides guidance to the mind for the contemplation of the invisible.”8 And then an early Bishop of the church has this to say: “We can find it easy to understand, then, that the Creator of angels, dominions and powers is He who in a moment of His power made this great beauty of the world out of nothing, which did not itself have existence and gave substance to things or causes which did not themselves exist.”9
When Paul was in Athens speaking to the Areopagus council, he made this point to those who lived there that he saw numerous statutes and temples all around the city to many gods. Then, he goes on to describe the God he served: “He is the God who made the whole world and everything in it. He is the Lord of the land and the sky… He is the one who gives people life, breath, and everything else they need. He does not need any help from them. He has everything he needs… God wanted people to look for Him, and perhaps in searching all around for Him, they would find Him. But He is not far from any of us… It is through Him that we are able to live, to do what we do, and to be who we are. As your own poets have said, ‘We all come from Him.’ That’s right. We all come from God. So you must not think that He is like something people imagine or make.”10
Because of this, Paul left no room for anyone to have an excuse. Like some people today, they are willing to look at the universe with its complexity, order, and continuous energy and say that it all came into existence by accident, but when you try to convince them that this could also be true of an airplane or automobile, clock or computer, they just laugh at you. But Jesus made it clear: “If I had not come and spoken to the people of the world, they would not be guilty of sin. But now I have spoken to them. So they have no excuse for their sin.”11
Reformer Martin Luther points to those the apostle Paul is addressing: “He judges the Romans and their wise men much more severely because they led the world through their political system, dominion, and philosophy. With that in mind, the text teaches us that ministers of the Gospel must admonish, first and above all, the rulers and thinkers of the people, not indeed in their own words coming from an erratic confused mind, but by means of the Gospel showing them how they act contrary to the divine Word and so sin.”12 In other words, it is not up to the believer to prove there is a God, it is up to the atheist to prove there is no God. It’s hard for them to ignore the vast array of evidence, so they seek ways of guessing or surmising how it all came into being without a God.
John Calvin speaks of God’s invisible things: “God is in Himself invisible; but as His majesty shines forth in His works and in His creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge Him, for they clearly set forth their Maker: and for this reason the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, that this world is a mirror or the representation of invisible things.13 He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity; for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself. When we arrive at this point, the divinity becomes known to us, which cannot exist except accompanied with all the attributes of a God, since they are all included under that idea.”14
Bible teacher H. A. Ironside sees a simple formula here. He writes: “As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law. No principle could be sounder. Men are held responsible for what they know or might know if they would. They are not condemned for ignorance unless that ignorance is the result of the willful rejection of light. ‘Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.‘15”16 In other words, the evidence is there if people will just look at it, but some are so comfortable in their ignorance they don’t want to learn anything new.
Charles Hodge adds: “Though the revelation of God in His works is sufficient to render men inexcusable, it does not follow that it is sufficient to lead men, blinded by sin, to a saving knowledge of Himself. As Paul says of the law, that it was weak through the flesh, that is, insufficient on account of our corruption, so it may be said of the light of nature, that, although sufficient in itself as a revelation, it is not sufficient, considering the indisposition and inattention of men to [understand] divine things.”17
Charles Spurgeon adds to this by saying: “Men who never heard the gospel can see God in His works if they open their eyes. There is written upon the face of nature enough to condemn men if they do not turn to God. There is a gospel of the sea, and of the heavens, of the stars, and of the sun; and if men will not read it, they are guilty, for they are willfully ignorant of what they might know, and ought to know.”18
Albert Barnes uses Paul’s indictment of the philosophers in his day to admonish the people of his own day:19 “How true and fearful is this, respecting that great multitude in Christian lands who have the Bible, and who never read it; who are within the reach of the sanctuary, and never enter it; who are admonished by friends, and by the Providences of God, and who regard it not; and who look upon the heavens, and even yet see no proof of the eternal power and Godhead of Him who made them all! Nay, there are those who are apprised of the discoveries of modern astronomy, and who yet do not seem to reflect that all these glories are proof of the existence of an eternal God; and who live in ignorance of religion as really as the pagan, and in crimes as decided and malignant as disgraced the darkest ages of the world. For such there is no excuse, or shadow of excuse, to be offered in the day of doom. And there is no fact more melancholy in our history, and no one thing that more proves the stupidity of people, than this sad forgetfulness of Him that made the heavens, even amid all the wonders and glories that have come fresh from the hand of God, and that everywhere speak His praise.”20
John Stott gives us this thought to consider: “There are degrees of the knowledge of God, and these phrases cannot possibly refer to the full knowledge of Him enjoyed by those who have been reconciled to Him through Christ. For what Paul says here is that through general revelation people can know God’s power, deity, and glory (not His saving grace through Christ) and that this knowledge is not enough to save them but rather to condemn them, because they do not live up to it. Instead, they suppress the truth by their wickedness, so that they are without excuse. It is against this willful human rebellion that God’s wrath is revealed.”21
1 Tertullian: A Treatise on the Soul 18, loc. cit.
2 Psalm 8:3-4
3 Matthew 5:45
4 1 Timothy 1:17; Cf. 6:16
5 Hebrews 11:27
6 Isaiah 40:26
7 Novatian: The Trinity 3.6
8 Basil: Homily One, Creation of the Heavens and Earth 1.6
9 Ambrose: Six Days of Creation 1.4.16
10 Acts of the Apostles 17:24-25, 27-29
11 John 15:22
12 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 44
13 Hebrews 11:27
14 John Calvin: On Romans, Verse 20
15 John 3:19
16 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Albert Barnes held a prominent place in the New School branch of the Presbyterians during the Old School-New School Controversy, to which he adhered on the division of the denomination in 1837; he had been tried (but not convicted) for heresy in 1836, mostly due to the views he expressed in Notes on Romans (1834) of the imputation of the sin of Adam, original sin, and the atonement; the bitterness stirred up by this trial contributed towards widening the breach between the conservative and the progressive elements in the church.
20 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.