One of the things that makes the Bible an incomparable book is that it so unremittingly deals with the greatest issues of reality. Of course, God the Creator of everything is the greatest Reality. The entire universe, with all its vast expanse of space between the stars and its vast expanse of space between the electrons, is as nothing compared to God. And the Bible is relentlessly Godward in its focus. It has to do with God and how everything relates to God. And it comes from God and speaks with the authority of God. And so there is an atmosphere of greatness and seriousness in this book that is unlike anything else.
We are at one of those places this week, in our encounter with Romans, where the intensity of seriousness and greatness and ultimate significance for humankind reaches a tremendous height. In verse 18, we have seen that the gospel of the free gift of God’s righteousness (verses 16–17) is needed for us sinners because the wrath of God is already “being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Two weeks ago we took up this astoundingly (even politically) up-to-date verse and pondered the suppression of truth in the human heart that kindles the anger of God.
What About People Who Haven’t Heard?
Now today, we see the apostle Paul answering an objection. The objection is this: “You say, Paul, that the wrath of God is being revealed in history against humankind because the truth of God is suppressed by the human heart. Well, what about those who don’t have the truth of God? Don’t they have a legitimate excuse to protest God’s anger? How can it be right for God to be angry at people, and punish people for suppressing a truth that they never had?” That’s the objection that Paul is answering here, in verses 19–21.
“The great urban tragedy is that people are perishing under the wrath of God with no appeal and no hope.”
It’s a question that many of you have asked. What about people who have not yet been reached by the gospel of Christ? How are they held accountable before God? Paul will deal with this question again in chapter two (verses 11–16). For example, in Romans 2:11–12 he says, “There is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.” You see that this is the same question he is answering in chapter one. How does God deal with people who have different levels of exposure to divine truth?
In Romans 1:19–21, there are four steps in Paul’s argument. We can either start at his conclusion and work our way backward to his reasoning, or we can start with his reasoning and work our way forward to his conclusion. I think it would be good to do it both ways to make sure that we see the argument clearly. So let me start first with his conclusion and work backward with you through the other three steps, and then we will turn around and move the other direction with a very special, relevant application.
Paul’s conclusion is found at the end of verse 20: “so that they are without excuse.” In other words, his final answer to the objection is that it is not valid. To those who say, “God is wrong to reveal his wrath against all people for suppressing the truth,” Paul answers, “No they are without excuse.” That’s the issue: Are there people in the world who have an excuse or a warrant to protest the wrath of God against them? And here is Paul’s answer: No. No one has an excuse. Everyone is guilty and deserves the wrath of God.
They Did Not Honor God
Now how does he argue for that conclusion? There are three steps leading to this conclusion. We keep moving backward from the conclusion.
So if Paul’s conclusion is step four in the argument, step three is found at the end of verse 21: “For . . . they did not honor him as God or give thanks.” They are without excuse and do, in fact, deserve the wrath of God, because they do not glorify God or give him thanks. Nowhere in the world does God receive the glory or the gratitude that truly righteous hearts would render to him.
The fullness of his divine glory and the extent of our dependence on his power are suppressed everywhere. So all men everywhere are guilty and without excuse.
They Did Know Him
But this assumes another step in the argument. Did they have this truth about God? Were they responsible for owning up to what they didn’t know?
Still working backward from the conclusion, the next step is that all people everywhere know the truth of God. You see this step in the argument expressed at the beginning of verse 19 and at the beginning of verses 20 and 21. Verse 19 “That which is known about God is evident within them. Or better: “among them.” (See the similar Greek wording in 1 Corinthians 11:9.) Verse 20: “Since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen.” Verse 21a: “For even though they knew God. . . .”
So, Paul says, they do know God. What can be known is evident among them. Specifically, God’s eternal power and God’s divine nature are known by everyone. So now we have three steps:
Step four: The conclusion — All men are without excuse and deserve the wrath of God.
Step three: This is because they do not glorify God as God or give him thanks.
Step two: This failure of fitting worship is not because of innocent ignorance of God, but in spite of sufficient knowledge about God.
God Made Himself Evident
Now that leaves one last step in the argument at the bottom of it all, namely, the profound statement at the end of verse 19, and the explanation of it in the middle of verse 20. At the end of verse 19, Paul says that the reason God’s power and deity are evident among them is that “God made it evident to them.” “That which is known about God is evident among them; for God made it evident to them.”
How did he do that? This is explained in the middle of verse 20 in the words, “being understood through what has been made.” God’s eternal power and divine nature — what can be known of God — have always, from the beginning of the creation of man, been “understood through what has been made.” When verse 19b says “God made [his power and deity] evident to mankind,” it means that God did something to make himself known. Knowledge of God did not just happen coincidentally. God makes provision for it.
God’s Work of Art
What does he do to make himself evident? He made the world. He created — like a potter, or a sculptor or a poet, except he created out of nothing. In verse 20, when it says that God is “understood through what has been made,” the words “what has been made” stand for one Greek word (which you will all recognize), the word poiēma. It’s the word from which we get “poem.”
The universe and everything in it is God’s work of art. What’s the point of this word? The point is that in a poem there is manifest design and intention and wisdom and power. The wind might create a letter in the sand, but not a poem. That’s the point. God acted. God planned. God designed. God crafted. He created and made. And in doing that, Paul says in verse 19, God made himself evident to all mankind. The universe is a poem about God.
Now, this too is extremely relevant for our day. Just as we saw that verse 18 was politically relevant, this text is scientifically relevant. Naturalistic evolution is treated as a given in our culture — the belief that the universe, and human life in particular, evolved by the sheer forces of matter, time and chance. Given enough time and some matter to work with, chance has brought about what we see in the universe and in the human species today. God as creator and designer is simply ruled out and thought to be an unnecessary hypothesis.
“All men everywhere are guilty and without excuse.”
But increasingly in our day, this assumption of naturalistic evolution is being shown to be a philosophical prejudice rather than a scientific conclusion from evidence. Philip Johnson has led the way in this movement with his two books, Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. In 1996, Michael Behe, a biochemist who looks at the wonders of the microcosm of creation, rather than the macrocosm, wrote Darwin’s Black Box, and argued that the single tiny cell is “irreducibly complex,” and therefore the product of intelligent design, not chance. “Irreducible complexity” means that the immensely complex cell has a large number of parts that all work together in such a way that the absence of one part stops the entire function — which means that the functioning system of the cell could not be built up by small evolutionary steps in which the parts accumulated gradually.
For example, Behe considers the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum is a whip-like rotary motor that enables a bacterium to navigate through its environment. The flagellum includes an acid-powered rotary engine, a stator, O-rings, bushings, and a driveshaft. The intricate machinery of this molecular motor requires approximately fifty proteins. Yet the absence of any one of these proteins results in the complete loss of motor function. The irreducible complexity of such a biochemical system cannot be explained by the Darwinian mechanism, nor indeed by any naturalistic evolutionary mechanism proposed to date. (William Dembski, “Science and Design”)
Scientific Suppression of the Truth
Most recently of all William Dembski has written* The Design Inference*. He points out that many well-known scientists must constantly suppress the suspicion that there is design (poiēma) in the universe. For example, he quotes Richard Dawkins, an “arch-Darwinian” who says, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” And he quotes Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, who says, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved” (“Science and Design,” 21).
In other words, to use the words of the apostle Paul, the manifest truth of God’s poiēma — God’s “designed things” — must be constantly suppressed, lest scientists be brought face to face with their Maker and have to glorify him as God and give him thanks as dependent creatures.
Paul’s Argument Applied to Urban Ministry
So let me now, by way of summary, trace Paul’s argument this time from the bottom up. He is answering the objection whether people — unbelieving scientists in university labs or tribal people groups unreached with the gospel — have an excuse to protest against the wrath of God upon them. But as I summarize Paul’s argument, I want to give it an unusual application: not to Darwinian scientists, and not to distant tribal people groups, but to Kenny Stokes and our ministry in the urban setting of Minneapolis. This is not hard to do, because each of Paul’s four steps has a direct bearing on ministry right here as Kenny begins his work among us.
1. The Creator’s power and deity are evident.
God is the Creator and has acted to make the truth of his eternal power and deity evident to all. This means, Kenny, that you and every person you will meet in this city are the creation of God and designed by God for a purpose, namely, to communicate God. You are God’s poem and so are they. God has worked in Phillips and Elliot Park and Powderhorn and the Northside as the Creator of all things and the communicator of himself. He has gone before you. You will reap where others have sown — especially God, the Creator.
2. All people know God.
All the men and women and young people in the urban center of Minneapolis know God. Verse 21a: “They knew God.” There is a profound common ground between you and everyone you will ever meet in this city. Yes, the truth is suppressed, but it is there, buried and distorted. God has not left himself without a witness to every mind and heart. You will not be talking to trees. You will be talking to people who look at trees and see the glory of God. They know God — his eternal power and deity.
4. But they suppress this knowledge.
Nevertheless, they suppress this knowledge and do not glorify God or give him thanks (verse 21b). This means at least that, since you love the glory of God and want him to receive the worship he is due, you will labor with all your strength in the power of God’s Spirit to open their hearts to the truth and spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
“You have in your heart and in your mouth the most powerful urban strategy in the world: the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
4. So, everyone is without excuse before God.
Everyone in urban Minneapolis and St. Paul, and indeed every person on this planet, is “without excuse” under the wrath of God. Nobody can bring any legitimate protest against God’s justice in this matter. This means, Kenny, that the great urban tragedy is not drugs or illicit sex or murder or theft or poverty or homelessness or abuse. The great urban tragedy is that people are perishing under the wrath of God with no appeal and no hope. They are without excuse.
The Path of Escape
And you and I, and every Christian in this room have the remedy and the path of escape, namely, that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation [from wrath!] to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [and to the rich and the poor, and the educated and the uneducated, and red and yellow and white and black], for in it the righteousness of God [not his wrath] is revealed from faith to faith.”
The free gift of righteousness is the escape from God’s wrath in the city. You have in your heart and in your mouth the most powerful urban strategy in the world: the gospel of Jesus Christ. We all do. O Lord, come and give Kenny an anointing to mobilize us for this great saving work.