Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE INWARD CAUSE OF IDOLATRY”

Romans 1.21-22

 

The Bible is true.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, provides for us an accurate history of events. Genesis chapters one and two record the creation of the universe and all that herein is in six literal twenty-four hour days, as well as two accounts of God’s creation of man, Adam and Eve. Genesis chapter three contains the history of Eve’s temptation by the serpent and Adam’s fall into sin, as well as the promise by God to someday provide a Savior, and God’s provision of animal skins as clothing for Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden after the Fall. Chapter four informs us of the birth of Cain, the birth of Abel, the slaying of Abel by Cain, and the birth of Seth, who then begat Enos. The chapter closes with the words,

 

“then began men to call upon the name of the LORD.”

 

Genesis chapter five contains the genealogy from Adam to Noah. Chapter six is occupied by an account of the corruption of the human race, the demonic attack on mankind, the warning that God’s Spirit would not always strive with man, the testimony that Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD and walked with God, and the directive to build the Ark. Chapters seven and eight pertain to the populating of the Ark with pairs of animals along with Noah and his sons and their wives, their deliverance through the Flood in the Ark, and Noah’s building of an altar and offering a sacrifice when the floodwaters subsided and the Ark was emptied of its precious cargo. Genesis chapter nine begins with God blessing Noah and his sons and commanding them to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,” and goes on to record His covenant with Noah, the rainbow as a reminder of God’s promise, and then a sad episode when Noah and one of his sons sinned, demonstrating that mankind’s sinful nature had not changed even after deliverance through the Flood. God’s clear intent was for mankind to spread out and live a pastoral life on an earth recently judged. However, that was not to be. Genesis chapters ten and eleven contain not only extensive genealogies that provide valuable insight into the families that overspread the earth, from the light-skinned descendants of Japheth, to the swarthy descendants of Shem, to the black-skinned offspring of Ham, but also introduce us to an infamous figure in history and the judgment of God that he fostered.

His name was Nimrod, and we are introduced to him in Genesis 10.8-10:

 

8      And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth.

9      He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD.

10    And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

 

Nimrod’s description sets him apart from all other men of his era. He towered over other men in both ambition and accomplishment. It is notable that while God wanted men to scatter Nimrod gathered men into cities and built a kingdom. Genesis 10.9’s description of Nimrod is ominous. To be described as “a mighty hunter before the LORD” is not a compliment. Nimrod was an innovative and ambitious man. He formulated the first government that ruled over men, demanding the monopoly of force that all subsequent rulers insist upon to control the populations they exercise lordship over. He also devised for the first time the concept of idolatry as a means of controlling his subjects with not only political and police power, but to also manipulate the citizenry by taking advantage of their religious inclinations to his own ends. Genesis 11.7-8 records God’s intervention as a judgment using the confusion of languages that resulted in the dispersion of men. God’s involvement in men’s languages has ever since been associated with judgment.

And so it has been for these thousands of years. Kings and despots are exercising dominion over men’s lives using police power and using idolatry, on one side ruling men’s minds and bodies with force and coercion and on the other side ruling men’s hearts and souls with idol worship, superstition, and spiritual trickery. The exceptions to this evil pursuit have been such men as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who lived in covenant with God. Then God raised up Moses, delivered the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, and gave them the Law, among other things prohibiting idol worship by the Jewish people. Then, at the appointed time, God sent forth His Son, Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, to die on the cross of Calvary and rise the third day to procure our salvation full and free.

When we last looked at Paul’s letter to the Romans in Romans 1.19-20, we saw that mankind is without excuse for his sinfulness, for his rejection of the truth about God and his refusal to worship and serve God. After all, the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen. And that which may be known of God is revealed in all men because God showed it to them. Oh, I know that unsaved men and women everywhere will make all kinds of claims about why they do not bow to Christ or worship and serve God. More and more people will even claim that they doubt God’s existence. But God says He has shown things to everyone. God says evidence of His existence is everywhere. That means every unsaved person you know who gives this excuse or that reason for not confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord and serving Him is spinning a yarn, is fabricating a fiction, is concocting an excuse, is living a lie!

This evening we take up our consideration of Paul’s letter to the Romans by examining Romans 1.21-22. Before we read, take note of what we will see in the text, that the great tendency of mankind in his fallen state despite God’s revelation of Himself by various means to mankind is to take up idolatry:

 

21    Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

22    Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools

 

Does Paul’s description apply more to Gentiles here than it does to Jewish people? Yes, it does. But this is because the Old Testament is filled with God’s retribution against His chosen people for their idolatry. The seventy years of their Babylonian captivity brought to an end the Jewish tendency to engage in the idolatry of statue worship, replacing it with a more sophisticated form of idolatry that featured no statues but substituted instead the idolatry of self-worship, money worship, power worship, and other forms of homage paid to anything and everything but God. At this point in his letter Paul zeros in on the Gentile world’s tendency to plunge headlong into the mire of sensory sins. That understood, take the time to observe with me the inward cause of their idolatry. Remembering that the unsaved people you and I know are ever and always without excuse before God, it is because they do know God (though not in a saving way) and know of God, and from what they know they are reasonably expected to understand that it is their duty to worship Him, and Him only, the one true and living God.

Yes, it is true that some unsaved individuals have greater access to the light of truth and the means of spiritual knowledge than do other people, yet everyone has enough access to truth and knowledge to leave him inexcusable. But the mischief of it was what unsaved people ended up doing instead of worshiping and serving God.

Five things presented to us by Paul:

 

First, THEY GLORIFIED HIM NOT AS GOD

 

Consider this word glorified. This word glorified refers to influencing another person’s opinion about someone else.[1] In other words, it is your duty, obligation, responsibility, and privilege to speak and act so highly of God that other people’s opinion of God will be enhanced, elevated, and improved. It is the verb form of the word that is found in Revelation 4.11 in which the four and twenty elders will fall down before God, saying,

 

“Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

 

Now consider the actual behavior of unsaved mankind and the unsaved individuals you and I both know. They did not, and they do not glorify God as God. Their affections toward God and their awe and adoration of God does not keep pace with what the Apostle Paul informs us is their knowledge of Him. To glorify God as God is to glorify Him and no one else, to brag on Him while bragging on no one else. But unsaved mankind, and the individual unsaved people you and I know, do not so glorify Him. Instead, unsaved mankind has tended to establish religions to worship false gods. To glorify God as God is to worship Him with spiritual worship, but this lost world instead has made images of both Him and His creatures. Not to glorify God as God is in effect not to glorify Him at all; to respect Him as a creature is not to glorify Him, but to dishonor Him. And this takes place even when an unsaved person does not worship a statue, but instead worships a spouse, or a child, or a career, or a hobby, or a charity, or a game, or even “our time together.”

 

Next, NEITHER WERE THEY THANKFUL

 

Unsaved mankind is not thankful for the favors they receive from God. Can it not be said that being unaware of God’s mercies is at the bottom of anyone’s sinful departure from God? And is it not in some sense a display of one’s sense of entitlement to think you deserve what you get from God when in fact you and I deserve nothing from God? James 1.17 describes each and every thing we get from God as a gift, being both good and perfect. How often do people complain and bicker about what God gives them on one hand while taking for granted and ignoring His many blessings on the other hand?

The reality is that mankind is a fallen race, and each of us was born dead in trespasses and sins, deserving nothing whatsoever from God. It is a wonderful thing for the child of God to recognize and to thank God for His grace in this matter of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, acknowledging that He did not have to send His Son to die on the cross to provide for our salvation. However, let us also recognize that it is not only spiritual blessings that God has no obligation to provide. Our material blessings are also a matter of God’s grace, and He is wholly without obligation to provide any of them. The sunshine and the rain, the flowers and bees and refreshing breeze are God’s good gifts to us. As well, art and our appreciation of beauty and proportion, technology and our ability to capture the resources of our environment for our benefit, are gifts God has provided. It is terrible ingratitude that does not acknowledge God’s good and perfect gifts, with an arrogant presumption that we deserve anything from God that lies at the bottom of that ingratitude.

 

Third, THEY BECAME VAIN IN THEIR IMAGINATIONS

 

Let us make sure we understand two words before drawing a conclusion about the meaning of this phrase: First, the word that is translated they became vain. This verb is found only here in the New Testament, though the noun form of the word is used in several other places. It is a passive verb that has to do with being rendered futile, to being given over to worthlessness.[2] A southerner might translate this word to mean being made no account. Next, the word that is translated imaginations. This word has to do with the mental faculty of reasoning.[3] It has to do with thinking, forming an opinion, or contemplating.

Paul does not in any sense dispute the potential for genius that resides in mankind, either in our creativity or our productivity. What he points out here are the conclusions that are drawn about spiritual matters. Consider the engineering feats in China that gave rise to great population centers, as well as in the Indus River Valley, along the Euphrates River, and also the Nile River. It takes technology to support a large population, and genius to devise the technology those ancient civilizations developed. Then reflect on the philosophies of the ancient Greeks. Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the list goes on. As well, the genius that went into the design, construction, and proportions of their many places of worship.

But for all their recognized genius on science, technology, art, and philosophy, be mindful that these same people worshiped bugs, snakes, cats, and they deified mortal men and women! Their notions of God, and the creation of the world, and the origin of mankind, and the chief good; in these things, when they abandoned the plain truth, they soon descended into a thousand vain and foolish fancies. The various opinions and theories of the many sects of philosophers in these different civilizations were nothing more than vain imaginations. Dragons and demons in China and Southeast Asia, a million gods with multiple arms and legs in India, the worship of animals in Egypt, and the worship of barely larger than life men and women in Greece and Rome and Scandinavia are each of them ridiculous. Vain imaginations is the perfect description for such spiritual nonsense. How could brilliant men be guilty of such lunacy?

 

Fourth, THEIR FOOLISH HEART WAS DARKENED

 

Consider with me the words foolish, heart, and darkened. There are several Greek words that can be translated into our word foolish. The particular word used here is not so much a tendency to make wrong decisions but refers to a gross lack of understanding. This is the person who on God and the things of God just doesn’t get it. Capable? No. Responsible? Most certainly. Next, the Greek word for heart. A. T. Robertson summarizes:

 

Kardia is the most comprehensive term for all our faculties whether feeling (Ro 9:2), will (1Co 4:5), intellect (Ro 10:6). It may be the home of the Holy Spirit (Ro 5:5) or of evil desires (Ro 1:24).[4]

 

And what do we know of the unsaved person’s heart from the prophet Jeremiah?

 

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”[5]

 

Now for the word was darkened. The noun form of the word has to do with being dark or gloomy. This verb form of the word has to do with becoming darkened.

The beloved old Puritan Matthew Henry comments,

 

The foolishness and practical wickedness of the heart cloud and darken the intellectual powers and faculties. Nothing tends more to the blinding and perverting of the understanding than the corruption and depravedness of the will and affections.[6]

 

Finally, PROFESSING THEMSELVES TO BE WISE, THEY BECAME FOOLS

 

Matthew Henry again:

 

This looks black upon the philosophers, the pretenders to wisdom and professors of it. Those that had the most luxuriant fancy, in framing to themselves the idea of a God, fell into the most gross and absurd conceits: and it was the just punishment of their pride and self-conceitedness. It has been observed that the most refined nations, that made the greatest show of wisdom, were the arrantest fools in religion. The barbarians adored the sun and moon, which of all others was the most specious idolatry; while the learned Egyptians worshipped an ox and an onion. The Grecians, who excelled them in wisdom, adored diseases and human passions. The Romans, the wisest of all, worshipped the furies. And at this day the poor Americans worship the thunder; while the ingenious Chinese adore the devil. Thus the world by wisdom knew not God, 1Co 1:21. As a profession of wisdom is an aggravation of folly, so a proud conceit of wisdom is the cause of a great deal of folly. Hence we read of few philosophers who were converted to Christianity; and Paul’s preaching was no where so laughed at and ridiculed as among the learned Athenians, Ac 17:18-32... The plain truth of the being of God would not content them; they thought themselves above that, and so fell into the greatest errors.[7]

 

Take a look at the word wise and fools in verse 21. The word wise translates the Greek word sophoi, and is the Greek plural for wise, meaning wise ones.[8] You might recognize from the sound of the word that this is the word from which our English words sophistry and sophisticated are derived. Of course, those who imagine themselves to be wise do at the same time imagine themselves to be sophisticated. However, the Apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit informs his readers that such are quite different from what they imagined themselves to be. The Greek verb describing what happened to the unsaved is a passive verb (meaning they did not do this intentionally, but rather it happened as an unintended consequence of their rejection of God) meaning they became fools. And the Greek word is the word from which we get our English word moron.

 

Take note of the spiritual, moral, and intellectual slippage that takes place here with unsaved mankind as he refuses to glorify God (which is our reason for existing, after all), becomes ungrateful for God’s many undeserved blessings, all of which affects people mentally (vain imaginations) and spiritually (a heart that is incapable of relating to reality, having turned away from God, becomes darkened), and these people ending up becoming the opposite of what they think they are; fools who think they are wise.

To be sure, this is a perfect description of Gentile cultures that seem to have accomplished so much in science, technology, and sometimes even philosophically; yet they worship bugs, snakes, centipedes, rivers, rocks, vegetables, and things carved from wood or formed from gold, silver, and brass. Paul's description of mankind applies even when statuary is not bowed to. Those who worship self, or leisure, or spouse, or child, or nature, or whatever else can be imagined display the same tendencies. Refuse to glorify God and you become unthankful, vain in your imaginations, darkened in your heart, and a fool who thinks himself wise. My goodness, I have described the nation in which I live.

How can you reject the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and not become a fool? How can you turn away from the God of your mother and the God of your father without imagining that you are somehow wiser than your parents, capable of deeper thought and possessing superior insights? All the while such as do that damn their souls to Hell along with the souls of their children. Beloved, it’s heartbreaking. The only hope you and I have of reaching the lost with the gospel, of reaching our family members for Christ’s sake, is to face the brutal reality of their spiritual condition, recognizing that the truth also applied to you and me in our lost condition. Yet God’s grace prevailed over our sinfulness did it not? And making use of our prayers and efforts we can trust that God’s grace will prevail over their sinfulness.

Let us be thankful that a sinner, any sinner, can be justified in the sight of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

__________

[1] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 258.

[2] Ibid., page 621.

[3] Ibid., pages 232-233.

[4] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol IV, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1931), page 329.

[5] Jeremiah 17.9

[6] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible, (Bronson, MI: Online Publishing, Inc., 2002), bible@mail.com

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bauer, pages 934-935.

Would you like to contact Dr. Waldrip about this sermon? Please contact him by clicking on the link below. Please do not change the subject within your email message. Thank you.

pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org