Summary: Although they knew God by His works, they did not glorify Him for who He is or thank Him for all He has done.
Subnatural Response of Man
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.
Although they knew God by His works, they did not glorify Him for who He is or thank Him for all He has done. Rather, they gave themselves over to futile philosophies and speculations about other gods, and as a result lost the capacity to see and think clearly. “Light rejected is light denied.” Those who don’t want to see lose the capacity to see.
Here Paul gives another reason why the heathen are lost; it’s that they have closed their eyes to the revelation of God to the conscience. They did not glorify Him as God. As if the natural world around us isn’t enough, God has planted in the heart of every man the knowledge that there is a righteous God. Though the heathen knew that He was God and deserved to be glorified, they willfully chose not to glorify Him as God. They did not ascribe to His person the holiness, perfection, and sovereignty which are His alone. All who know God yet fail to give Him glory and thanks are foolish, having a darkened heart, a heart that does not understand God’s truth but seeks its own way. “Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and depart from evil” (Prov. 3:7).
Nor were thankful. To add injury to insult, the heathen accepted the good things of nature from the hand of God, but were not thankful for them. Ingratitude is one of the worst sins there is. You recall that the Lord healed ten lepers, but only one returned to thank Him. Only ten percent were thankful, and I believe it is less than that today.
But became futile in their thoughts. In order to suppress the witness of the ordered structure of the universe, and the inborn testimony of the conscience, fallen man had to develop a reasoning process based upon his imagination. This reasoning is described by God as vain because the whole structure of man-made philosophy is lacking of divine truth and is therefore invalid. Thus, by suppressing the truth of God and believing their man-made falsehood, they plunged their foolish heart deeper into darkness.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,
As men grew more conceited over their so-called knowledge, they plunged deeper into ignorance and nonsense. These two things always characterize those who reject the knowledge of God—they become unbearably conceited and terribly ignorant at the same time. The wisdom of man is foolishness to God. Man searches for truth through logical reasoning but arrives at a philosophy that is foolish in God’s sight.
When they exalted their human reasoning and paraded their wisdom before their peers, they acted as fools. The foolish heart is not one lacking in intelligence but one lacking in the moral understanding of who God is.
23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
Laboring under the handicap of this extreme deficiency, the heathen changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image. By creating a god suitable to their own fallen conception of deity the heathen have violated the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3).
Made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. More than just theorizing what they thought God ought to be, the heathen actually created animal-like images of their concept of God. In so doing they violated the second commandment—“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me”, (Ex.20:34-35.) They have devised their own concept of divinity and placed it above the one true God.
The apostle has given us two reasons why the man without God is lost and deserving of condemnation: (1) because of the revelation of God in nature (vss. 19–20); and (2) because of the revelation of God in their conscience (vss. 21–23). The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all who suppress the truth of these two witnesses. To the heathen who does not suppress this fundamental light, the Lord Jehovah grants additional enlightenment. But whoever is guilty of suppressing the available truth about God does not receive light unto salvation.
There is the mistaken notion around today that mankind is improving itself morally. But here Paul says just the opposite, pointing out that mankind has been in a downward spiral. Instead of evolving from lower forms, “early man” was of a high moral order. By refusing to acknowledge the true, infinite, incorruptible God, he devolved to the stupidity and depravity that go with idol worship. This whole passage reveals the lie of evolution.