Romans 1:18-23 -- Understanding Unbelief: The Rejection of God - Part 1

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Romans 1:18-23  -  Understanding Unbelief: The Rejection of God


One of the most difficult topics for people both believers and unbelievers alike, is that of the wrath of God.  It is hard to reconcile for most people a God who is loving with a God who is wrathful.  Yet it is at the cross where these two ideas meet, where love and wrath, justice and mercy are powerfully displayed. 

Paul has just boldly proclaimed that God’s righteousness is now being revealed in the gospel to all who will believe.  Yet Paul understands that you need to help people understand a need before you can give them a cure.  Jesus states this when he tells the Pharisees that it is not the healthy that need a physician but those who are sick.  Paul begins an exposition of the Gospel by first pointing out Man’s dreadful predicament.  This section is a timely section as we head into the Master’s College Outreach Week.  Many will be heading into situations where you will be sharing the gospel and being reminded of man’s plight is essential in showing God’s solution.  This section is rich theologically and  we will learn much.  The biggest thing that we will look at today is Unbelief.  We will be looking to understand unbelief biblically and be motivated to share the news of God’s provision that brings salvation.  For if we truly understand the wrath of God, we will be motivated to share the provision of God for that wrath – The death and resurrection of Christ.

We will never come to grips with the importance of the gospel or be motivated to share it, until this sad truth of God’s wrath has been fully integrated into our worldview!!!

1.  The Rejection of God’s revelation

  • J.I. Packer states, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.”
  • There are more references to God’s wrath and anger than to His love and mercy, yet too many Christians will focus on love and mercy at the expense of the biblical idea of God’s wrath and anger.  You cannot have a complete, prefect, and holy God without any of these. 
  • That is why Paul spends so much time helping one understand man’s predicament, that He is sinful, has rejected God and wrath abides upon him. 
  • Understanding wrath is also understanding that man is sinful and separate from God.  This goes back all the way to the first sin in Genesis 3.  Sin separates, it always separates.  All people have been separated from God due to their sin and it will be judged by a righteous judge.
  • Two words are used for wrath in the New Testament. qumo,j And ovrgh,
    • The term qumo,j describes a rage, intense feeling and a sudden flare up of passion.  This word is used only in Revelation to describe God’s wrath – which makes sense as God pours out a terrible wrath at the end times. 
    • The term ovrgh, describes a wrath that builds up over time.  This term is used in the other cases describing God’s wrath.  The point is that God’s wrath has two types of aspects.  Ultimately, it is a slow build up that is growing ripe.  When discussing Revelation, it is appropriately described as an intense pouring out of wrath.
  • Here, Paul helps the reader understand that God’s wrath is being revealed, this build up of wrath that is currently being revealed and will one day ultimately be unleashed. 
  • You see, here Paul uses a present tense to describe something that is currently happening and continues to happen.
  • God’s wrath is not just future, but is currently being revealed.  Notice the similarities to verses 16-17.  In those verses, Paul is not ashamed of the Gospel because it is salvation to everyone who believes, to both Jew and Greek.
  • Yet, God’s righteousness is currently being revealed and so is His wrath.
  • God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel and is accessible for all who believe.
  • God’s wrath is revealed from heaven to all people because of ungodliness and unrighteousness.
  • In this first section, 1:18 to 3:20, Paul will demonstrate that just as the gospel is available to all who believe, Jew and Greek, God’s wrath is upon all people, both Jew and Greek.
  • In the first chapter, He demonstrates why God’s wrath is upon the Greek, the non-Jew.  It is because of their rejection of God – seen in rejecting His natural or general revelation - creation.
  • In chapter 2, Paul demonstrates that God’s wrath is upon the Jew because they have rejected God as well and they have God’s special revelation – the law.
  • Then in chapter 3, Paul shows that none are righteous, not Jew nor Greek.  None seek after God – all are under God’s wrath because they have fallen short of God’s glory.
  • So with that understanding, lets look at this first section – Understanding Unbelief.
  • Here we will look at the rejection of God and in particular we will see two keys to understanding unbelief – man rejects God’s revelation in 18-20, man rejects Gods’ glory and honor in 21-23.
  • Next time we will see the consequences of rejecting God – that God hands over.
  • As Paul begins to address the idea of God’s wrath, he notes a few things of interest.
  • First, he notes that this wrath is from heaven – It pictures a holy yet angry God in heaven, looking over all on earth.
  • This wrath is also due to two things in particular.  It is against ungodliness and unrighteousness.
  • Interesting that Paul uses these two words.  Ungodliness looks to a perversity in religious character which usually emphasizes idolatry.
  • Unrighteousness refers to a perversion in moral character which usually emphasizes immorality.
  • And when you look at verses 18-32, we see that man exchanges God for idols and exchanges natural functions for unnatural functions – gross sexual immorality seen in homosexual relationships.
  • God’s wrath abides on man because He has rejected God.  That first rejection is developed at the end of verse 18

The truth is suppressed

  • God’s wrath is on man because of ungodliness and unrighteousness.
  • Man is also characterized as one who “suppresses”
  • This has the idea of holding something down – some translations use the word “hinder”
  • This is a key theological statement – Man “holds down truth” He suppresses it.
  • The word for suppress is in the present tense – meaning, this is constantly and continuously being done.
  • Truth here is not just something to know but something also to obey.  People suppress the truth when they reject God
  • It reminds me of a story of two brothers.  The older brother would hold down the younger brother so he couldn’t move, then would let spit dangle from his mouth until it almost got to the younger boys lips, then he would suck it back up and do this over and over.
  • To suppress means to hold something down and render it ineffective.
  • Truth is attesting to men that there is a God , that He has spoken and that they are accountable.
  • Yet in rejecting God, people hold that down so that it has no effect in their lives.

The truth is evident, clear and leaves no excuse

  • Verses 19-20 help us understand that people have been given a knowledge about God.
  • That which is “known”….about God.
  • This knowledge is something that cannot save, but condemns.
  • This idea that is developed is called natural or general revelation.  It is called natural because it pertains to creation, everything in nature.  It is often referred to as general because it is knowledge or revelation that is available to all people at all times, meaning this revelation is the same for those in Noah’s time as it is for our times.
  • Look at a few descriptions of this “knowledge”.  It is evident to all – meaning it is manifest or made known.  IT is evident within people.
  • It is also knowledge that God makes known – People have this knowledge not because of their intelligence or ability to figure it out, but because God makes it known.
  • In verse 20, Paul further defines this knowledge.
  • This knowledge includes creation.  This knowledge makes God’s attributes known.
  • But notice carefully, what attributes are known?  God’s eternal power and divine nature.
  • Creation or general revelation shows people that there is a God and He has power enough to create and He is divine.
  • Paul is careful to show that this knowledge is not a saving knowledge.  It is a condemning knowledge.  God gives enough knowledge so that no one ever can say, I didn’t know there was a God.
  • Creation attests to it.

Psalm 19:1-6

  • Those that try to offer an excuse are silenced by the overwhelming testimony of creation.
  • Acts 17, Paul preaches to those in Athens.  He shows that God is creator and has placed mankind around the world in nations.  He states that God wants man to seek him, to feel around for him and find him.  God made all this so man would search for God and find Him, yet man rejects Him.
  • So Paul helps us understand that God’s wrath is on mankind because of sin, but in particular, because He rejects God’s revelation about God.
  • He rejects it by suppressing it, holding it back, even though it is evident and clear. 
  • Therefore, He is without excuse.

2.  The Rejection of God’s glory and honor

  • Not only is Unbelief seen in people rejecting God’s revelation but also in people rejecting God’s glory and honor.
  • This section shows the root sin that dominates all people and unleashes God’s wrath
  • The fundamental sin is the failure to glorify God and give Him thanks.
  • This can ultimately be traced back to pride – viewing oneself as more important than God – worshipping self

Unbelief proudly refuses to worship God

  • Those who don’t glorify God are darkened in their understanding and speculate.
  • Their pride rejects and removes God and replaces self on the throne
  • This section traces how idolatry came about – the replacing of the creator with the created.
  • They knew God but rejected Him, suppressing the truth, they fail to glorify and thank God – they fail to worship
  • In fact, they refused to worship God for who He is.
  • To glorify God is to exalt Him, to recognize Him as supremely worthy of honor, and acknowledge His divine attributes.
  • Scripture repeatedly calls us to glorify God.
  • Man fails to give thanks to God for God’s provision
  • You cannot thank God when you fail to acknowledge His existence.
  • In surrendering the glory of God, they turned to the worship of mute and dumb idols.
  • Yet this is part of God’s wrath, that they become futile and foolish.

Isaiah 44:12-19  

  • God opposes the proud – and will judge.
  • Look again at Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God”
  • Remember, they have rejected this knowledge, suppressed it.
  • Yet it is this knowledge that should have moved men to worship the creator.
  • This knowledge, the knowledge of God’s existence, His eternal power and divinity should have brought God glory and thanks
  • But unbelief proudly refuses to worship God.
  • More than that, unbelief not only refuses to worship God but it replaces God with idols
  • Unbelief proudly replaces God with idols  -  Man worships himself; Man worships the created
  • In verse 22, Paul says that although they thought themselves wise, they are really fools.
  • Professing to be wise, they became fools, literally “Morons”
  • Verse 23 shows the progressive degeneration.  First they worshiped the image of man, they worshiped themselves.
  • They their moronic thinking moved into worshipping birds and other animals. Notice the progression, from birds that fly to animals that walk on the earth to that of reptiles crawling on the ground.
  • First, man suppresses the truth about the greatness of God, then he perverts it by worshipping lowly created animals.
  • Failing to glorify God due to pride is the root sin here that progresses into much more.
  • Today, we have seen this progression go from worshipping God to worshipping idols.
  • Next time, in the next section, Paul continues the progression of idolatry – refusing to worship God, that will lead to acts of immorality.
  • Ultimately, unbelief starts in the heart than manifests itself in outward acts of disobedience.
  • It is scary to think that a failure to glorify God and give Him thanks can lead to such serious consequences.


—  SO what is our application – First, glorifying God and giving Him thanks.  We should constantly be challenged to glorify God in our actions, in our lives

—  We should be looking to be a thankful people.  When we are not thankful, but complaining, grumbling and self consumed, we are living no better than those who suppress the truth

—   The wrath of God should motivate us to share God’s message of salvation

—  This section should motivate us to live godly lives, realizing that we still function in the flesh and can live in ungodliness and unrighteousness.  Look at Eph 4.


Ephesians 4:17-23

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