For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-23 ESV
Wise fools. The world is full of them and always has been. Paul describes them as futile in their thinking. The Greek word Paul uses is mataioō and it can mean “to passively become foolish, or to become idolatrous.” Paul says they are without excuse because they have had every opportunity to honor or recognize the existence and reality of God, who has revealed Himself through His creation. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20 ESV). These kinds of people indict themselves because they all end up worshiping something or someone. They may not call it worship, but they esteem or honor other things, giving them the place of prominence in their lives that belongs to God alone. Some end up worshiping man, making humanity to end-all-be-all of our existence. They believe we are our own savior. Others worship science, placing all their hope and trust in reason and man’s ability to solve all of the world’s problem through scientific research and development. We can end up worshiping political parties or governmental policies. Elevating men or man-made ideas to a god-like status in our lives has been the lot of humanity since the fall. That was the original temptation of the serpent in the garden. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV).
Paul makes it painfully clear that all men know God. They sense the existence of something bigger and greater than what they can see. Creation virtually shouts that there is something or someone out there, the first cause behind all that we see. Ancient man knew that there was something out there. That’s why they created idols. That’s why they worshiped the sun, moon, stars, animals, nature and every other created thing. But modern man is more sophisticated than that. Our idols are more subtle and sensible. We wouldn’t dream of worshiping the sun. But we will worship the Big Bang Theory. We will go out of our way to concoct every possible explanation for our existence, while refusing to accept the idea that God exists. Claiming to be wise, we become fools, self-deceived and sadly mistaken in our conclusions. We end up exchanging the glory of the immortal God for a cheap, but seemingly plausible replacement.
Paul insists that man’s persistent attempt to explain away God has left him with a darkened heart. What was once clearly visible to them, the invisible attributes of God, has become cloudy and veiled. Man has lost the ability to sense God’s presence and power. This has left him with the nagging need to explain his existence and make sense of a world that continues to spiral out of control, despite all our scientific advances, modern conveniences, and moralistic efforts. We keep hoping and believing that we can make the world a better place. We have made vast improvements in communication, transportation, medicine, education and agricultural production. Yet the world remains plagued by hatred, disease, famine, ignorance, and inequities in all their hideous forms. We have been able to make advances in everything except the state of man’s heart. We can help him live longer, but we are incapable of making him live better. Human reason will never come up with a way to deal with sin. Science will never come up with a solution to the problem of the human heart. In our wisdom, we have become fools.
And yet, in the midst of all of mankind’s arrogance and pride, God sent His Son. Paul calls it the gospel, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16 ESV). In the gospel, the righteousness of God has been revealed. What God expects of humanity has been made known through His Son coming to earth as a man and living a sinless life. Jesus did what no other man had been able to do since Adam. He lived in perfect obedience to the law of God. And it was His sinless life that made Him the perfect sacrifice to pay for the sins of man. He died so that man might live. He gave His life so that we would not have to give ours. The death of Jesus was what God required so that men might be made right (righteous) with Him. And this righteousness is only available by faith. Not by reason. Not by scientific explanations or experiments. Not through human effort or any amount of seemingly moral advancements.
Man, apart from God, is helpless, hopeless, blind, ignorant, and spiritually dead. Even his best efforts on his best day are flawed and, ultimately, worthless. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). Man has become to smart for his own good. His intelligence has left him unable to honor God or give Him thanks. He is determined to come up with his own explanation for his existence and his own plan for his future. But in the end, all men must face the reality of God’s existence. God doesn’t go away because we attempt to explain Him away. He doesn’t cease to exist simply because our intelligence refuses to accept Him. God has revealed Himself in His creation. He has made Himself known through His written Word. And He has given men the means by which they can know Him personally and permanently through His Son. But the knowledge of God is ultimately available as a result of faith, not wisdom.