Romans 1:22–25, “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. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
As we make our way through Romans 1, we should ask ourselves whether Paul has Jews or Gentiles in mind primarily in this chapter. He tells us in verses 16–17 that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God for both Jews and Greeks, so the backdrop against which this righteousness is revealed—ungodliness and unrighteousness—must refer to the sins of one of these groups. We shall see that the sins mentioned in this chapter characterize both Jews and Gentiles, though each group manifests these transgressions a bit differently (3:9). However, there is no doubt that Paul speaks primarily of the Gentiles in Romans 1.
We see this in the references to images of “mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” in today’s passage (vv. 22–23). Certainly, the worship of false gods and graven images marks Israel’s history (1 Kings 11:1–8; Isa. 31:7; Jer. 10). Yet by the first century AD, rank idolatry had largely disappeared from Jewish practice. True, many Jews did serve idols in some sense—the Pharisees, for example, obeyed their oral traditions and not God through the true application of His law (Matt. 15:3). But first-century Jews did not worship images of men and beasts. Thus, the Apostle’s description of open idolatry as the consequence of rejecting the Creator means he is speaking primarily of non-Jews in Romans 1.
One of Paul’s primary points in Romans 1:22–25 is that there is no such thing as religious neutrality within the hearts and minds of human beings. When people reject the one true God, they do not stop worshiping; rather, they direct their religious affections elsewhere. Only the term foolishness can describe this redirection of devotion. Though human beings were made to experience the unmediated, perfect glory of God, they have rejected this for that which cannot satisfy—finite creatures. Gentile idolatry that worships gods who act just like fallen men is a particularly clear example of this insanity, but it has other manifestations. Even monotheistic religions such as Islam result from exchanging God’s truth for a lie and serving the creature, for Allah is a god who conforms to what human beings think a deity should be like, a creation of vain imagination no less than Zeus or Osiris.
In pouring out His wrath now in anticipation of the great day of wrath to come, the Lord gives people exactly what they want. He does not merely stand back and watch as they run off after idols, but He hands them over to their false worship. When human beings impenitently refuse to love the one true God, He will confirm them in their sin (vv. 24–25).
John Calvin comments, “Religious honor cannot be given to a creature, without taking it away, in a disgraceful and sacrilegious manner, from God.” Rejecting God is so serious that if we will not have Him, He will not have us. One cannot persist in impenitent sin and in giving to other creatures the devotion God deserves. Those who do so become more ensnared in idolatry and grow more blind to the truth. May we seek the Lord above all that our eyes might see His truth more clearly.