Summary: The heathen have clearly seen God; they have clearly rejected God; and they have clearly become rebrobate.
WILL GOD EXCUSE MANKIND?
Paul has both good news and bad news for the world. The good news, which will shortly follow, is that God has provided an atonement for our sins. The bad news, which he explores first, is that all men need atonement for their sins. Before you can appreciate the good news, you must know that there is bad news. Before Paul tells us that the gift of God is eternal life, he tells us that the wages of sin is death. Verse 18 begins the groundwork for his case against man’s self-righteousness. His aim is to show that the whole world is morally bankrupt, unable to receive a favorable verdict at the judgement bar of God, and desperately in need of divine mercy and pardon.
If the heathen do not have a full knowledge of God, are they then really lost?
I. THE HEATHEN HAVE CLEARLY SEEN GOD (1:18-20).
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (v. 18).
Paul contends that the heathen have had the righteousness of God revealed to them, yet they suppress the truth of His righteousness for they are ungodly and unrighteous.
A. God is known intuitively.
"Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them" (v. 19a).
Man intuitively knows of God’s existence, for “that which may be known of God is manifest in them.” Being made in God’s image, man universally has innate awareness of the Creator’s existence. This means that humans, apart from reason or sense perception, have immediate, nonrational knowledge of God’s existence. But this does not give a personal knowledge of the Creator.
Leith Samuel says, “Many missionaries point out that the heathen know more than we think. They know that there is a God. There are no atheists among heathen tribes. There has never been discovered upon earth a tribe of people, however small or depraved, which has not believed in some kind of god or had some system or worship. . . . The heathen found is so-called primitive tribes know that they have sinned. When a Christian comes to them and talks about sin he often find ready acknowledgment that this is true. The heathen seem to know that their sins must be punished. They seem afraid of punishment, and afraid of death (as are most men everywhere). They know that sin must be atoned for, and they seek ways of appeasing their angry deities or deity.”
B. God is seen in creation
"for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" (vv. 19-20).
Abraham Lincoln said, “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how he could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.”
Job declared, “But ask the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee. Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this?” (Job 12:7-9).
The psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard” (Psalm 19:1-3).
Although God is invisible, the qualities of His nature “are clearly seen.” Everything in the universe that people can perceive with their senses has the mark of God upon it and bears witness to His power and deity.
To the animals below us the phenomena of nature may just be a spectacle before their eyes, but make no impressions on their minds. But to man, they have a language, a communication. They awake wonder, awe, a basic idea of God and His righteousness.
There can be no comparison between God’s witness to Himself in creation and His witness to Himself in redemption. Creation will tell us somewhat of the work of His hands; Calvary alone unveils His heart.
It was the purpose of God to remove from man all possible excuse for ignorance of Himself.
II. THE HEATHEN HAVE CLEARLY REJECTED GOD (1:21-23).
"Because that, when they knew God, [Man began with knowledge, not ignorance, of God’s Being and character.] they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; [The natural creation was intended to lead man to glorify God and to express gratitude to Him.] but became vain [useless] in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed [They exchanged one thing for another.] the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things [We see the folly of their exchange—they exchanged the uncorruptible for the corruptible.]" (vv. 21-23).