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Exegesis of Romans 1:18-21
Fred G. Zaspel, 1993


Following some introductory remarks leading to a statement of his theme, namely the saving power of the gospel of God's righteousness received by faith (1:16-17), the apostle Paul begins in this section to develop his argument. "The righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel is a gift of God received on the sole basis of faith (dikaiosune theou . . . ek pisteos v.17) in Jesus Christ. This justifying righteousness is the heart of Paul's gospel and is the only message of salvation for both Jew and Greek (v.16).

        But the truth and necessity of this message must be established. Accordingly, in 1:18-3:20 Paul argues for man's need of justification. This need for a gift of righteousness is made evident by a display of human depravity; hence, the strong accusatory and condemnatory language of this section of the epistle.

        The universal rebellion and consequent guilt of humanity form the theme which Paul develops in this passage (1:18-21).


The apostle argues that God's wrath against sinners is already being revealed (apokaluptetai, v.18). He then justifies this assertion (dioti . . . dioti) by exposing man's continual rebellion against known truth (v.19-21a). Finally, he points out that this rebellion has driven humanity into a vicious downward spiral into further depravity (21b). Paul moves from the fact of God's wrath to its cause (sin) and then on to its display in the (temporal) effects of that sin.

Point of Reference

It is commonly accepted that Paul is here establishing the guilt of the Gentile world and that his condemnation of the Jew is taken up in chapters 2 and (particularly) 3. There is little doubt that this assessment is generally accurate, but it is significant that while Paul does not mention the Jew here explicitly, neither does he so mention the Gentile; rather, he speaks of anthropon. Moreover, virtually all that is said in these verses is true of both classes of men, albeit especially so of Gentiles.(1) Viewed in this way the apostle's indictment falls upon all humanity as such, which is evidently his ultimate intention (cf. 3:10, 23). Verse 18, then, stands as a summary statement of the entire section, and the repeated use of the present tense in verses 18b-20 (katechonton . . . nooumena kathoratai reflect the continued and so universal nature of these human activities and experiences.


        Verse 18

The repeated apokaluptetai, standing emphatically first in this sentence, draws attention to orge theou which is revealed concurrently with (or perhaps antecedent to) the revelation of the dikaiosune theou in the gospel (v.17). Gar here maintains its usual explanatory force, relating back to the preceding assertion that God's righteousness must come as a gift received ek pisteos. Such a free justification is necessary "because" all men are lost and fit objects of God's wrath. Man's nature and behavior are such that he could by no other way attain a right standing with God.

Orge theou (subjective genitive) here should be understood in its usual sense and not as a merely impersonal force bringing about the inevitable effects of sin.(2) In reference to God wrath is neither dispassionate nor pridefully cruel (as so often in human experience). "Wrath is the holy revulsion of God's being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness."(3) God is not passive but active in response to sin, nor is it improper to speak of Him as wrathful. This attitude and exercise of righteous indignation against evil is no vice but a virtue which God perfectly displays against (epi, here in a violent sense) sin.

        Sin is deserving of penal inflictions. Ap' ouranou corresponds antithetically to en auto (v. 17, as orge theou does also to dikaiosune theou) and makes reference by metonymy to God Himself.(4) It is His wrath that is already "being revealed" (apokaluptetai, continuous present). Temporal judgments are viewed here as coming directly from God. Like justification (v.17), wrath is an eschatological term, but Paul is showing it to be already come, though in smaller measure. Just as the trickles of water from the wall of the dam give evidence of greater catastrophe to follow, so the eschatological judgments of God upon human sin (cf. 2:5) are already being anticipated in history(5) (cf. 1:32). No exact form of judgment is specified; the present judgments of God are seen in a variety of ways--"natural" calamities, local disasters, etc.

Pasan asebeian kai adikian describes the character of human sin. Hodge and others have understood asebeian in reference to God and adikian in reference to men--"impiety and immorality."(6) But it is difficult to understand adikia in such a restricted sense. Somewhat more plausibly, Cranfield refers the former term to man's actions in regard to God Himself and the latter to His just order.(7) It seems easiest, however, especially in light of the descriptive pasan governing both words, to understand the phrase as pleonastic, encompassing the totality of man's wickedness.

        Humanity is further indicted as ten aletheian en adikia katechonton. Ten aletheian is not the gospel specifically but general truth about God which is explained further in the following verses. Truth in the NT is to be both believed and obeyed. Katechonton suggests that men have refused to do either. The AV translates "hold," giving the kata a perfective force. Linked as it is with en adikia the criticism is that of hypocrisy: "practice unrighteousness while knowing truth." In this case their sin is described only in en adikia and not in katechonton. It would be difficult to show that the idea of hypocrisy is not somewhat involved, but from here it is but a small step to understand kata as simply "down" or "against." It is, then, the "suppressing" of truth that is condemned.(8) The indictment which follows seems to confirm this meaning. En adikia then, is instrumental: they "suppress the truth by means of their unrighteousness." The problem is more than hypocrisy; it is rebellion. Truth understood was refused. Cranfield gives a conative force to the participle, pointing out that men do not actually succeed in suppressing the truth but only "attempt to suppress the truth."(9) Again, it is difficult to deny the point, but Cranfield only addresses a part of the picture. Granted, the truth is not successfully suppressed in men's minds, but the suppression of truth is very much accomplished in their actions. The point is not merely that men have tried to avoid the truth intellectually but that by their adikia they have actually refused it. Consistent with Paul's other references to man's inherent knowledge of God in this context (1:28, 32; 2:14-15, etc.), their knowledge involves a sense of moral duty, a moral duty which he here says all have spurned.

Verse 19

Dioti signifies a causal relation to what precedes. That it is indeed men as rebels who are the objects of God's wrath is clear "because" they actually do possess a knowledge of God (tou theou, objective genitive). To gnoston in the NT consistently denotes "what is known" of God not merely "what may be known" of God,(10) but which of these options is intended here is the subject of much discussion. The former results in a tautology, but the latter seems unprecedented and has the added problem of overstatement, for not all that "may be known of God" is revealed "in them." Further, "what is known" has the advantage of standing parallel to verse 18 ("real yet suppressed knowledge"(11)) and so establishing more forcefully men's "excuselessness" (v.20). On the whole this interpretation seems to have the fewest difficulties.

        Shedd understood en autois in terms of men's "immediate self-consciousness:" (12) God has revealed Himself in the very constitution of man's being. This is what presupositionalist Van Til designated as man's sensus deitatis,(13) his intuitive awareness of God. This idea fits well with 1:28, 32; 2:14-15, 27. Barrett and Cranfield argue for the translation "among them";(14) that is, God reveals Himself in the midst of men by creation itself. Morris takes en autois as a simple dative, "to them,"(15) but it would be much easier to understand it as a locative/dative of sphere.(16) En autois, then, does seem to suggest intuitive knowledge, the sphere in which God is known (phaneron); namely, men's minds (cf. nooumena, v.20). Autois (19b) specifies the same as the intended object of that revelation. Tois poiemasin (v.20), however, points to more objective external revelation. Accordingly, Murray combines the two ideas: God is known "in them" (en autois, v.19a) because He revealed Himself "to them" (autois, v.19b) in creation.(17) This is certainly the simplest understanding of the terms: gar is given its usual explanatory force, and ephanerosen remains a simple historical aorist. Ho theos gar autois ephanerosen seems simply to emphasize that this knowledge of God in man is a result of God's own self-disclosure. All men possess clear (albeit limited) knowledge of God, for He has made Himself known to them.

Verse 20

In the following statement the apostle identifies the content of to gnoston tou theou and further explains the means by which God has revealed it. Garindicates that Paul is again proceeding to explain himself further. Verse 20, then, is epexegetical of verse 19.

Apo is best understood in a temporal sense ("since"), which is a more common Pauline usage than is source. Moreover, to understand it as source would create a tautology with the following phrase. Tois poiemasin is instrumental, denoting the means by which God reveals Himself to men, and nooumena is causal: these things are seen "because they are perceived by means of His works." In keeping with the temporal sense of apo kathoratai (a NT hapax legomenon) is a durative present. Kata gives an intensive force to horao "clearly seen." This verb perhaps more naturally conveys the idea of physical perception with the eyes, but associated as it is with nooumena Paul may well be intending it in the sense of mental perception. Cranfield argues that both terms indicate physical sight, but this would be an unusual understanding of nooumena. Moo is probably correct when he argues that "these two verbs require that both elements be present."(18) It would seem that Paul is speaking in terms of both; indeed, it is "by means of things made" that the mind knows ten aletheian But what Paul emphasizes here is not so much natural theology as it is natural revelation. It would not seem that he is speaking merely of knowledge which man has as a result of logical deduction from observation of the created order. Rather, he is speaking of what man can see in the created order because of the knowledge he inherently possesses as a creature made in God's image. Barrett argues that "the context shows that the men in question did not in fact possess this knowledge in themselves."(19) However, the broader context does indeed reveal that man possesses this knowledge intuitively (cf. 1:28, 32; 2:14-15, 27), and it would seem that Paul includes both ideas in his argument here.

        All men, then, do indeed possess a kind of sensus deitatis, but that instinctive awareness is said (here, at least) to have been augmented from without. This is not quite the evidentialist's attempt to prove to natural man that God exists. The apostle's whole point is to show that by the works of God men already know Him. God has seen to that Himself; hence, the repeated emphasis of verse 19b. Paul does not court men to consider certain evidence in order to arrive at a right conclusion; rather, he condemns them for refusing to accept the knowledge they already have.

        So the knowledge of God in man is both intuitive and deductive, presuppositional and evidential. "Clearly seeing the invisible" is an oxymoron which may be intended to emphasize the same.

E te aidios autou dunamis kai theiotes is appostional to ta aorata. It is the invisible God Himself that is revealed, specifically aidios autou dunamis kai theiotes.(20) Aidios autou dunamis describes God's omnipotence as an attribute He possesses from eternity. Theiotes expresses "divine excellence in general" and is a "collective term for all the divine perfections."(21) The terms together seem intended to convey a summary not of complete knowledge of God but of all that sets Him apart as God. It is Himself as God which He makes known.

        In these two verses (19-20) Paul has explained ten aletheian which he introduced in verse 18 and which men reject.

Eis to normally expresses purpose. However, on account of the causal clause which follows (dioti . . .) Burton and others have understood this as expressing result,(22) which is not an uncommon usage.(23) Murray argues theologically that it would be difficult to separate result from purpose here, for the intent and consequence of God's self-revelation must surely be the same.(24) Such is no doubt correct, but this does not determine the intent of Paul's statement, and judging from the following clause Paul's use of the infinitive does seem to be consecutive. "As a result" of God's constant self-disclosure men are rendered anapologetous(predicate accusative) for their rejection of Him: they cannot claim ignorance or offer any substantive defense.

       Verse 21

Dioti introduces the apostles explanation of men's excuselessness. Gnontes is concessive, the aorist emphasizing that their knowledge of God was antecedent to their rebellion. They are without excuse "on this account, that although they knew God. . . ." The articulate ton theon implies that their knowledge was indeed of the true God. Edoxasan (historical aorist) connotes honoring or ascribing glory to God. Men cannot in any way enhance God's glory, but knowing Him as they instinctively do they are responsible to ascribe to Him the glory that is properly His. WV reflects the idea of proportion. Man's knowledge of God demands a corresponding response. Here the noun (theon) is anarthrous, emphasizing quality. They knew the true God, but for all whatever religious conversation and activity they had they did not acknowledge Him as such or render to Him the honor that is worthy of deity.

        One evidence of their failure to glorify God is that "they did not give [Him] thanks" for all the bountiful provisions which they continually enjoyed from His hand. For Paul, gratitude is an important and necessary response to God.(25) This is the very heart of man's rebellious sinfulness: contrary to all the evidence around him as well as the knowledge within him, he imagines himself self-sufficient and refuses to acknowledge that it is God Who has given him all that he has. True worship is marked by submission and gratitude to God; man has refused Him both.

        The knowledge of God within men is clearly not the knowledge of salvation (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21), but neither is it a mere awareness of His existence. It is the knowledge of God as God that men possess and suppress. They know and can see that He is and that He deserves corresponding worship. Such knowledge, when it is refused, more than adequately establishes the justice of their condemnation (v.18).

        Verse 21b, probably alluding to Psalm 94:11, describes the self-destructive results of man's rejection of God. The strong adversative alla expresses the contrast between what they failed to do and what actually occurred. Both emataiothesan and escotisthe are ingressive aorists: "became vain (AV) . . . became darkened." Mataioomai denotes "worthlessness" (BAGD). Various cognates are used in the LXX in reference to idolatry,(26) and judging from verse 23 Paul probably has this in mind, for idolatry serves well to exemplify man's natural futility in reference to religion. Dialogismois refers not to "imaginations" (as AV) but to inward reasonings: their thinking processes, in reference to religion, became futile, worthless, disassociated as they were from the fountain of truth which they had rejected. Kardia in Scripture denotes the inner self, the seat of the personality. Nor can it be restricted to the mind only but the entire intellectual and moral state of man.(27) This is described as "foolish" (asunetos), senseless. Both vanity and folly, in Scripture, have a moral as well as an intellectual connotation, for it is something that compounds a man's guilt, as here. Worse still, the heart eskotisthe, another expression conveying in Scripture both intellectual and moral worthlessness.(28) Eskotisthe e asunetos auton kardia parallels and describes emataiothesan en tois dialogismois auton and also reflects back to katechon in verse 18. The results of sin could not have been more disastrous: man's entire being is fallen. Having rejected what he knew about God man was thrust into inability to reason accurately in reference to Him. Their rebellion against ten aletheian results in gross ignorance, which in turn produces more rejection of God, and so on it goes. Each becomes both the cause and effect of the other; it is a vicious downward spiral. But "their ignorance is culpable ignorance, for it is rooted in rebellion."(29)

        This accounts for the beginning of all false religion throughout the history of humanity. Man has rejected the true God and in his ignorance has found substitute objects of worship. This is far from the modern evolutionary theories of religion! Paganism is not the original religion from which man has brought himself; rather, man has devolved from the knowledge of the true God to refusal to worship or thank Him to worthless speculations about Him and about religion in general and on to senseless darkness. Verses 22 and 23 describe the continued descent. In Paul's view all false religion is both an expression of man's rebellion and his judgment for it.(30)


All men have spurned the knowledge of God that is in them and which is evident to them in God's handiwork. This rebellion has resulted in a still more pervasive depravity which renders man blinded to and incapable of comprehending truth.(31) By establishing this fact Paul has also established the justice of God's wrath against humanity.


The aim of the apostle in this passage is to show the need of the free gift of justification. Accordingly, few passages are better suited to show the urgency of the gospel ministry. The knowledge of God which men possess is not sufficient to save them; indeed, it has been rejected, and that rejection has resulted in a blinding depravity. The only message that can save them is the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ. The righteousness necessary for them to enjoy a right standing before God is attained only by faith (ek pisteos). Human righteousness will never do; all men must submit to the Lord Jesus and receive Him as the sole ground of confidence before God.

        This passage also establishes the need of world missions. The untold millions in spiritual darkness are actually lost! They too have spurned their creator and opted for substitute deities. Their single greatest need is the gospel, and this is the only message that can save them. Accordingly, Paul feels himself a "debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians" to give them "the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone who believes" (1:14-16).

        Moreover, in dealing with natural man the goal must be more than asking them to judge the evidence for God. Rather, they must be shown that they have rebelled against the knowledge of God which they already possess. Evidential arguments used to regain that focus may be entirely right, but the evangelist must be careful not to cater to man's desire to stand above God and make himself judge of all truth. His greatest problem is not ignorance but rebellion, and he must be brought to acknowledge the same if he is to embrace Christ as his only hope.

        Finally, any believer reading this passage must be struck with the fact that it is a result of God's grace that he has been rescued from the vicious enslavement of his depravity. Salvation in Christ is indeed no mere human achievement: human effort has continually worked to the contrary! Salvation from sin and its consequent wrath, by the nature of the case, is a gift of grace from the good hand of God. What this must evoke from every true believer is an ever-increasing sense of "honor and gratitude" (v.21) to Him.

        The thrust of this passage has direct bearing on the gospel ministry and on worship itself. It explains the whole reason for the incarnation, the great urgency and exclusive value of the gospel, and the true grounds of worship. In short, it reveals the true value of Jesus Christ.


1) C.f. the emphasis on mere natural revelation (vv. 19-20) and idolatry (v. 23); which idolatry, however, is also strikingly reminiscent of instances of Jewish idolatry recorded in the OT.

2) C.f. Ernst Kasemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 37-38.

3) John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in The New International Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 35.

4) C.f. Lk. 15:21

5) This revelation of wrath is not in the preaching of the gospel; c.f. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 1, in The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Limited, 1990), 109-110. Such a negative connotation to the gospel does not seem to fit into Paul's argument, nor is there any syntactical indication of it (e.g. , v.17). is to be understood in a historical and not a cognitive sense. Moreover, the object of the wrath is said to be . See Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 95.

6) Charles Hodge, Epistle to the Romans (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 35.

7) Page 112.

8) As NIV, NASB. Paul uses in this sense in 2 Thes. 2:6-7 also.

9) Page 112.

10) Other than here in NT: Lk.2:44 and 23:49 (both substantives); Jn.18:15, 16; Acts 1:19; 2:14; 4:10; 4:16; 9:42; 13:38; 15:18; 19:17; 28:22, 28. LXX usage is the same: Gen.2:9; Ex.33:16; 2 Kings 2:11; Ezra 4:12, 13; 5:8; Neh.5:10; Ps.30:12; 54:14; 75:2; 87:9, 19; Is.19:21; Ezek.36:32; Dan.3:18; Zech.14:7. BAGD lists Gen.2:9 under "capable of being known, intelligible," but this would be difficult to establish. Cranfield admits the same usage in classical Greek, p. 113.

11) David L. Turner, "Van Til and Romans 1:18-21," GTJ, 2, 1 (1981): 53.

12) Commentary on Romans (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Publishers, 19...), p.20. Also Hodge, p.36.

13) Turner, p. 54.

14) Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, in Harper's New Testament Commentaries (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishing Co., 1980), 35; and Cranfield, pp. 79-80. Also Kasemann, p. 38.

15) The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 80.

16) H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 89-90.

17) Pp. 37-38.

18) P. 100.

19) P. 35; emphasis added.

20) occurs only here in NT and only here and Jude 6.

21) Hodge, p. 37.

22) Earnest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1978), 162. So also Cranfield, p. 116; Kasemann, p. 42; and A. T. Robertson and W. Hershey Davis, A New Short Grammar of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 347.

23) E.g. 12:1; 2 Cor. 8:6, etc.

24) P. 40.

25) Morris points out that of the 38 (possibly 39; c.f. Rom. 7:25) occurrences of in the NT 24 (25?) are found in Paul, and the corresponding noun (eucharistia) occurs in Paul 12 of 15 times; p. 84n. Significantly, all but one of the Pauline occurances (Rom. 16:4) are used of thanksgiving in reference to God and not man.

26) E.g. Dt. 32:21; Jer. 2:5. See Cranfield, p. 117.

27) Hodge, p. 39.

28) C.f. Jn. 3:19.

29) Barrett, p. 37.

30) C.f. , v18; vv. 24, 26, 28.

31) C.f. 1 Cor. 2:14.