or give thanks to him,
but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling
mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul now gets to the crux of his argument why people are “without excuse.” Not only do people suppress the truth about God as revealed in his creation. They also fail to honor God, they substitute their own made-up gods for God’s glory, and, as subsequent verses will show, they indulge the lusts of their hearts and commit grievous acts of sin.
Denial of God in thought leads to defiance of God in action. And the fundamental problem is not faulty conduct, which is but a symptom. The root defect is a flawed mind and corrupt human heart that cares not for God.
Paul is still targeting mainly Gentiles, who are held accountable for knowing about God through natural revelation. Jews, who condemned Gentiles for the very reasons Paul cites, may think he is leaving them off the hook, but coming up later he will hold Jews accountable for wandering from the truth about God revealed in their own Scripture.Societal sin and the moral individual
These verses begin Paul’s indictment of human depravity that results from abandonment of God. We note that Paul is speaking in general terms. His catalog of sins is certainly an accurate depiction of the escalating degeneracy of godless societies. Human history bears this out, and our grieving eyes see it playing out daily in our own culture. But Paul’s broad strokes may not characterize every individual.
Many baby boomers down through millennials, for example, seek to live moral lives and avoid the evil conduct Paul condemns. But if they think these verses do not apply to them they are tragically mistaken. The issue is what people primarily trust and depend on for their well-being.
People in ancient cultures thought their sacrifice to idols would bring good crops and good health. How different is today’s reliance on all the amenities and services available in the modern marketplace? Are we any different from idolatrous pagans if we stake our security and well-being on our income, weekly yoga, recycling, and Mediterranean diet? Many good things such as these enrich our lives and serve our community, but if they replace God they become evil. Idols these days come in chic wrappings. God alone is the source of every good thing, and for this he deserves our gratitude.
I bring up this subject now, because some people will read these verses and think they are okay with God because they do not bow before statues or engage in perverse behavior. Paul will demolish such thinking in chapter 2, verses 1–11, when he indicts those who judge others. How will today’s “moral” person fare by that standard? Exhibit A: Attitude toward people on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
No individual, no matter how decent and respected his or her conduct may be in human terms, can escape God’s judgment without professing faith in Jesus Christ.Futile thinking, dark hearts
We saw in the preceding verses that Gentiles know God to a limited yet sufficient extent to know better than to behave as they do. Professing to be wise, they engage in futile (empty, vain) thinking. Paul characterizes the heart—the center of the person’s thinking, willing, and feeling—as foolish (without understanding) and darkened, blinded from perceiving spiritual truth.
Douglas Moo comments, “At the very center of every person, where the knowledge of God, if it is to have any positive effects, must be embraced, there has settled a darkness—a darkness that only the light of the gospel can penetrate.” So blind is the human heart to the things of God that people seek enlightenment anywhere but the one place that opens both mind and heart—at the foot of the cross of Christ.
Unsaved Gentiles regard the crucified Christ as folly, whereas the redeemed see Christ as the wisdom of God, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24. If the beginning of wisdom is to fear God (Proverbs 9:10), the sustaining of wisdom is to honor God and thank him.A foolish exchange
In verses 22 and 23 Paul zeroes in on the height of foolishness. Nothing reveals the human heart’s corruption more clearly than its willingness to give up the majesty and splendor of the living God for dumb, decaying illusions of deity.
In verse 23 the word images is a translation of two Greek words meaning image and likeness. Paul likely refers to Genesis 1:26, where God uses both words: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” That image became corrupted when into Paradise crept sin in the guise of the serpent (see 7:8–11). Soon humanity was worshiping the same creeping thing that sought its demise.
In Paul’s day, says Marvin Vincent, Greeks worshiped the human body, Egyptians worshiped beasts and asps, Chaldeans worshiped serpents, and Romans worshiped nearly all the above. As Moo notes, “This tragic process of human ‘god-making’ continues apace in our own day, and Paul’s words have as much relevance for people who have made money or sex or fame their gods as for those who carved idols out of wood and stone.”
Everett Harrison observes that humans are religious beings and if they don’t give preeminence to God they will find something else to put in his place. “In modern times the western world has outgrown crass idolatry, but humanism has subtly injected the worship of man without the trappings. God is quietly ruled out and man is placed on the throne.”
Indeed, humanity in this age would rather polish and admire the pot than honor and thank the Potter.