ROMANS 1:24.—“When they knew God, they glorified him not as God.”
THE idea of God is the most important and comprehensive of all the ideas of which the human mind is possessed.
It is the foundation of religion; of all right doctrine, and all right conduct. A correct intuition of it leads to correct religious theories and practice; while any erroneous or defective view of the Supreme Being will pervade the whole province of religion, and exert a most pernicious influence upon the entire character and conduct of men.
In proof of this, we have only to turn to the opening chapters of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Here we find a profound and accurate account of the process by which human nature becomes corrupt, and runs its downward career of unbelief, vice, and sensuality. The apostle traces back the horrible depravity of the heathen world, which he depicts with a pen as sharp as that of Juvenal, but with none of Juvenal’s bitterness and vitriolic sarcasm, to a distorted and false conception of the being and attributes of God. He does not, for an instant, concede that this distorted and false conception is founded in the original structure and constitution of the human soul, and that this moral ignorance is necessary and inevitable.
This mutilated idea of the Supreme Being was not inlaid in the rational creature on the morning of creation, when God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” On the contrary, the apostle affirms that the Creator originally gave all mankind, in the moral constitution of a rational soul and in the works of creation and providence, the media to a correct idea of Himself, and asserts, by implication, that if they had always employed these media they would have always possessed this idea. “The wrath of God,” he says, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made, so that they are without excuse; because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God” (Rom. 1:18–21).
From this, it appears that the mind of man has not kept what was committed to its charge. It has not employed the moral instrumentalities, nor elicited the moral ideas, with which it has been furnished. And, notice that the apostle does not confine this statement to those who live within the pale of Revelation. His description is unlimited and universal. The affirmation of the text, that “when man knew God he glorified him not as God,” applies to the Gentile as well as to the Jew. Nay, the primary reference of these statements was to the pagan world. It was respecting the millions of idolaters in cultivated Greece and Rome, and the millions of idolaters in barbarous India and China,—it was respecting the whole world lying in wickedness, that St. Paul remarked: “The invisible things of God, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen from the creation of the world down to the present moment, being understood by the things that are made; so that they are without excuse.”
When Napoleon was returning from his campaign in Egypt and Syria, he was seated one night upon the deck of the vessel, under the open canopy of the heavens, surrounded by his captains and generals. The conversation had taken a skeptical direction, and most of the party had combated the doctrine of the Divine existence. Napoleon had sat silent and musing, apparently taking no interest in the discussion, when suddenly raising his hand, and pointing at the crystalline firmament crowded with its mildly shining planets and its keen glittering stars, he broke out, in those startling tones that so often electrified a million of men: “Gentlemen, who made all that?” The eternal power and Godhead of the Creator are impressed by the things that are made, and these words of Napoleon to his atheistic captains silenced them. And the same impression is made the world over.
Go today into the heart of Africa, or into the centre of New Holland; select the most imbruted pagan that can be found; take him out under a clear star-lit heaven and ask him who made all that, and the idea of a Superior Being,—superior to all his fetishes and idols,—possessing eternal power and supremacy (θειότης), immediately emerges in his consciousness. The instant the missionary takes this lustful idolater away from the circle of his idols, and brings him face to face with the heavens and the earth, as Napoleon brought his captains, the constitutional idea dawns again, and the pagan trembles before the unseen Power.
But it will be objected that it is a very dim, and inadequate idea of the Deity that thus rises in the pagan’s mind, and that therefore the apostle’s affirmation that he is “without excuse” for being an idolater and a sensualist requires some qualification. This imbruted creature, says the objector, does not possess the metaphysical conception of God as a Spirit, and of all his various attributes and qualities, like the dweller in Christendom. How then can he be brought in guilty before the same eternal bar, and be condemned to the same eternal punishment, with the nominal Christian? The answer is plain, and decisive, and derivable out of the apostle’s own statements. In order to establish the guiltiness of a rational creature before the bar of justice, it is not necessary to show that he has lived in the seventh heavens, and under a blaze of moral intelligence like that of the archangel Gabriel. It is only necessary to show that he has enjoyed some degree of moral light, and that he has not lived up to it.
Any creature who knows more than he practices is a guilty creature. If the light in the pagan’s intellect concerning God and the moral law, small though it be, is yet actually in advance of the inclination and affections of his heart and the actions of his life, he deserves to be punished, like any and every other creature, under the Divine government, of whom the same thing is true. Grades of knowledge vary indefinitely. No two men upon the planet, no two men in Christendom, possess precisely the same degree of moral intelligence.
There are men walking the streets of this city today, under the full light of the Christian revelation, whose notions respecting God and law are exceedingly dim and inadequate; and there are others whose views are clear and correct in a high degree. But there is not a person in this city, young or old, rich or poor, ignorant or cultivated, in the vicinity of vice or the saloons of wealth, whose knowledge of God is not in advance of his own character and conduct. Every man, whatever be the grade of his intelligence, knows more than he puts in practice. Ask the young thief, in the subterranean haunts of vice and crime, if he does not know that it is wicked to steal, and if he renders an honest answer, it is in the affirmative. Ask the most besotted soul, immersed and petrified in sensuality, if his course of life upon earth has been in accordance with his own knowledge and conviction of what is right, and required by his Maker, and he will answer No, if he answers truly.
The grade of knowledge in the Christian land is almost infinitely various; but in every instance the amount of knowledge is greater than the amount of virtue. Whether he knows little or much, the man knows more than he performs; and therefore his mouth must be stopped in the judgment, and he must plead guilty before God. He will not be condemned for not possessing that ethereal vision of God possessed by the seraphim; but he will be condemned because his perception of the holiness and the holy requirements of God was sufficient, at any moment, to rebuke his disregard of them; because when he knew God in some degree, he glorified him not as God up to that degree.
And this principle will be applied to the pagan world. It is so applied by the apostle Paul. He himself concedes that the Gentile has not enjoyed all the advantages of the Jew, and argues that the ungodly Jew will be visited with a more severe punishment than the ungodly Gentile. But he expressly affirms that the pagan is under law, and knows that he is; that he shows the work of the law that is written on the heart, in the operations of an accusing and condemning conscience. But the knowledge of law involves the knowledge of God in an equal degree. Who can feel himself amenable to a moral law, without at the same time thinking of its Author? The law and the Lawgiver are inseparable. The one is the mirror and index of the other. If the eye opens dimly upon the commandment, it opens dimly upon the Sovereign; if it perceives eternal right and law with clear and celestial vision, it then looks directly into the face of God. Law and God are correlative to each other; and just so far, consequently, as the heathen understands the law that is written on the heart does he apprehend the Being who sitteth upon the circle of the heavens, and who impinges Himself upon the consciousness of men.
This being so, it is plain that we can confront the ungodly pagan with the same statements with which we confront the ungodly nominal Christian. We can tell him with positiveness, wherever we find him, be it upon the burning sands of Africa or in the frozen home of the Esquimaux, that he knows more than he puts in practice. We will concede to him that the quantum of his moral knowledge is very stinted and meager; but in the same breath we will remind him that small as it is, he has not lived up to it; that he too has “come short”; that he too, knowing God in the dimmest, faintest degree, has yet not glorified him as God in the slightest, faintest manner.
The Bible sends the ungodly and licentious pagan to hell, upon the same principle that it sends the ungodly and licentious nominal Christian. It is the principle enunciated by our Lord Christ, the judge of quick and dead, when he says, “He who knew his master’s will [clearly], and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes; and he who knew not his master’s will [clearly, but knew it dimly,] and did it not, shall be beaten with few stripes.” It is the just principle enunciated by St. Paul, that “as many as have sinned without [written] law shall also perish without [written] law.”1 And this is right and righteous; and let all the universe say, Amen.
The doctrine taught in the text, that no human creature, in any country or grade of civilization, has ever glorified God to the extent of his knowledge of God, is very fertile in solemn and startling inferences, to some of which we now invite attention.
1. In the first place, it follows from this affirmation of the apostle Paul, that the entire heathen world is in a state of condemnation and perdition. He himself draws this inference, in saying that in the judgment “every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world become guilty before God.”
The present and future condition of the heathen world is a subject that has always enlisted the interest of two very different classes of men. The Church of God has pondered, and labored, and prayed over this subject, and will continue to do so until the millennium. And the disbeliever in Revelation has also turned his mind to the consideration of this black mass of ignorance and misery, which welters upon the globe like a chaotic ocean; these teeming millions of barbarians and savages who render the aspect of the world so sad and so dark.
The Church, we need not say, have accepted the Biblical theory, and have traced the lost condition of the pagan world, as the apostle Paul does, to their sin and transgression. They have held that every pagan is a rational being, and by virtue of this fact has known something of the moral law; and that to the extent of the knowledge he has had, he is as guilty for the transgression of law, and as really under its condemnation, as the dweller under the light of revelation and civilization. They have maintained that every human creature has enjoyed sufficient light, in the workings of natural reason and conscience, and in the impressions that are made by the glory and the terror of the natural world above and around him, to render him guilty before the Everlasting Judge.
For this reason, the Church has denied that the pagan is an innocent creature, or that he can stand in the judgment before the Searcher of hearts. For this reason, the Church has believed the declaration of the apostle John, that “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19), and has endeavored to obey the command of Him who came to redeem pagans as much as nominal Christians, to go and preach the gospel to every creature, because every creature is a lost creature.
But the disbeliever in Revelation adopts the theory of human innocency, and looks upon all the wretchedness and ignorance of paganism, as he looks upon suffering, decay, and death, in the vegetable and animal worlds. Temporary evil is the necessary condition, he asserts, of all finite existence; and as decay and death in the vegetable and animal worlds only result in a more luxuriant vegetation, and an increased multiplication of living creatures, so the evil and woe of the hundreds of generations, and the millions of individuals, during the sixty centuries that have elapsed since the origin of man, will all of it minister to the ultimate and everlasting weal of the entire race. There is no need therefore, he affirms, of endeavoring to save such feeble and ignorant beings from judicial condemnation and eternal penalty. Such finiteness and helplessness cannot be put into relations to such an awful attribute as the eternal nemesis of God. Can it be,—he asks,—that the millions upon millions that have been born, lived their brief hour, enjoyed their little joys and suffered their sharp sorrows, and then dropped into “the dark backward and abysm of time,” have really been guilty creatures, and have gone down to an endless hell?
But what does all this reasoning and querying imply? Will the objector really take the position and stand to it, that the pagan man is not a rational and responsible creature? that he does not possess sufficient knowledge of moral truth, to justify his being brought to the bar of judgment? Will he say that the population that knew enough to build the pyramids did not know enough to break the law of God?
Will he affirm that the civilization of Babylon and Nineveh, of Greece and Rome, did not contain within it enough of moral intelligence to constitute a foundation for rewards and punishments?
Will he tell us that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah stood upon the same plane with the brutes that perish, and the trees of the field that rot and die, having no idea of God, knowing nothing of the distinction between right and wrong, and never feeling the pains of an accusing conscience?
Will he maintain that the populations of India, in the midst of whom one of the most subtle and ingenious systems of pantheism has sprung up with the luxuriance and involutions of one of their own jungles, and has enervated the whole religious sentiment of the Hindu race as opium has enervated their physical frame,—will he maintain that such an untiring and persistent mental activity as this is incapable of apprehending the first principles of ethics and natural religion, which, in comparison with the complicated and obscure ratiocinations of Buddhism, are clear as water, and lucid as atmospheric air?
In other connections, this theorist does not speak in this style. In other connections, and for the purpose of exaggerating natural religion and disparaging revealed, he enlarges upon the dignity of man, of every man, and eulogizes the power of reason which so exalts him in the scale of being. With Hamlet, he dilates in proud and swelling phrase: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” It is from that very class of theorizers who deny that the heathen are in danger of eternal perdition, and who represent the whole missionary enterprise as a work of supererogation, that we receive the most extravagant accounts of the natural powers and gifts of man.
Now if these powers and gifts do belong to human nature by its constitution, they certainly lay a foundation for responsibility; and all such theorists must either be able to show that the pagan man has made a right use of them, and has walked according to this large amount of truth and reason with which, according to their own statement, he is endowed, or else they consign him, as St. Paul does, to “the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”
If you assert that the pagan man has had no talents at all committed to him, and can prove your assertion, and will stand by it, you are consistent in denying that he can be summoned to the bar of God, and be tried for eternal life or death. But if you concede that he has had one talent, or two talents, committed to his charge; and still more, if you exaggerate his gifts and endow him with five or ten talents, then it is impossible for you to save him from the judgment to come, except you can prove a perfect administration and use of the trust.
2. In the second place, it follows from the doctrine of the text, That the degraded and brutalized population of large cities is in a state of condemnation and perdition.
There are heathen near our own doors whose religious condition is as sad, and hopeless, as that of the heathen of Patagonia or New Zealand. The vice and crime that nestles and riots in the large cities of Christendom has become a common theme, and has lost much of its interest for the worldly mind by losing its novelty. The manners and way of life of the outcast population of London and Paris have been depicted by the novelist, and wakened a momentary emotion in the readers of fiction. But the reality is stern and dreadful, beyond imagination or conception.
There is in the cesspools of the great capitals of Christendom a mass of human creatures who are born, who live, and who die, in moral putrefaction. Their existence is a continued career of sin and woe. Body and soul, mind and heart, are given up to earth, to sense, to corruption. They emerge for a brief season into the light of day, run their swift and fiery career of sin, and then disappear. Dante, in that wonderful Vision which embodies so much of true ethics and theology, represents the wrathful and gloomy class as sinking down under the miry waters and continuing to breathe in a convulsive, suffocating manner, sending up bubbles to the surface, that mark the place where they are drawing out their lingering existence. Something like this, is the wretched life of a vicious population. As we look in upon the fermenting mass, the only signs of life that meet our view indicate that the life is feverish, spasmodic, and suffocating. The bubbles rising to the dark and turbid surface reveal that it is a life in death.
But this, too, is the result of sin. Take the atoms one by one that constitute this mass of pollution and misery, and you will find that each one of them is a self-moving and an unforced will. Not one of these millions of individuals has been necessitated by Almighty God, or by any of God’s arrangements, to do wrong. Each one of them is a moral agent, equally with you and me. Each one of them is self-willed and self-determined in sin. He does not like to retain religious truth in his mind, or to obey it in his heart.
Go into the lowest haunt of vice and select out the most imbruted person there; bring to his remembrance that class of truths with which he is already acquainted by virtue of his rational nature, and add to them that other class of truths taught in Revelation, and you will find that he is predetermined against them. He takes sides, with all the depth and intensity of his being, with that sinfulness which is common to man, and which it is the aim of both ethics and the gospel to remove. This vicious and imbruted man loves the sin which is forbidden, more than he loves the holiness that is commanded. He inclines to the sin which so easily besets him, precisely as you and I incline to the bosom sin which so easily besets us. We grant that the temptations that assail him are very powerful; but are not some of the temptations that beset you and me very powerful? We grant that this wretched slave of vice and pollution cannot break off his sins by righteousness, without the renewing and assisting grace of God; but neither can you or I.
It is the action of his own will that has made him a slave. He loves his chains and his bondage, even as you and I naturally love ours; and this proves that his moral corruption, though assuming an outwardly more repulsive form than ours, is yet the same thing in principle. It is the rooted aversion of the human heart, the utter disinclination of the human will, towards the purity and holiness of God; it is “the carnal mind which is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7).
But there is no more convincing proof of the position, that the degraded creature of whom we are speaking is a self-deciding and unforced sinner, than the fact that he resists efforts to reclaim him. Ask these faithful and benevolent missionaries who go down into these dens of vice and pollution, to pour more light into the mind, and to induce these outcasts to leave their drunkenness and their debauchery,—ask them if they find that human nature is any different there from what it is elsewhere, so far as yielding to the claims of God and law is concerned. Do they tell you that they are uniformly successful in inducing these sinners to leave their sins? that they never find any self-will, any determined opposition to the holy law of purity, any preference of a life of license with its woes here upon earth and hereafter in hell, to a life of self-denial with its joys eternal? On the contrary, they testify that the old maxim upon which so many millions of the human family have acted: “Enjoy the present and jump the life to come,” is the rule for this mass of population, of whom so very few can be persuaded to leave their cups and their orgies.
Like the people of Israel, when expostulated with by the prophet Jeremiah for their idolatry and pollution, the majority of the degraded population of whom we are speaking, when endeavors have been made to reclaim them, have said to the philanthropist and the missionary: “There is no hope: no; for I have loved strangers, and after them I will go” (Jer. 2:25). There is not a single individual of them all who does not love the sin that is destroying him, more than he loves the holiness that would save him. Notwithstanding all the horrible accompaniments of sin,—the filth, the disease, the poverty, the sickness, the pain of both body and mind,—the wretched creature prefers to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, rather than come out and separate himself from the unclean thing, and begin that holy warfare and obedience to which his God and his Saviour invite him.
This, we repeat, proves that the sin is not forced upon this creature. For if he hated his sin, nay if he felt weary and heavy laden in the least degree because of it, he might leave it. There is a free grace, and a proffered assistance of the Holy Ghost, of which he might avail himself at any moment. Had he the feeling of the weary and penitent prodigal, the same father’s house is ever open for his return; and the same father seeing him on his return, though still a great way off, would run and fall upon his neck and kiss him. But the heart is hard, and the spirit is utterly selfish, and the will is perverse and determined, and therefore the natural knowledge of God and his law which this sinner possesses by his very constitution, and the added knowledge which his birth in a Christian land and the efforts of benevolent Christians have imparted to him, are not strong enough to overcome his inclination, and his preference, and induce him to break off his sins by righteousness.
To him, also, as well as to every sin-loving man, these solemn words will be spoken in the day of final adjudication: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness, of men who hold down (κατεχεῖν) the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest within them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made; so that they are without excuse, because that when they knew God they glorified him not as God.”
3. In the third and last place, it follows from this doctrine of the apostle Paul, as thus unfolded, that that portion of the enlightened and cultivated population of Christian lands who have not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and repented of sin, are in the deepest state of condemnation and perdition.
“Behold thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness: an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes: which hast the form of knowledge, and of the truth, in the law: thou therefore that teachest another teachest thou not thyself? thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?”
If it be true that the pagan knows more of God and the moral law than he has ever put in practice; if it be true that the imbruted child of vice and pollution knows more of God and the moral law than he has ever put in practice; how much more fearfully true is it that the dweller in a Christian home, the visitant of the house of God, the possessor of the written Word, the listener to prayer and oftentimes the subject of it, possesses an amount of knowledge respecting his origin, his duty, and his destiny, that infinitely outruns his character and his conduct. If eternal punishment will come down upon those classes of mankind who know but comparatively little, because they have been unfaithful in that which is least, surely eternal punishment will come down upon that more favored class who know comparatively much, because they have been unfaithful in that which is much. “If these things are done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?”
The great charge that will rest against the creature when he stands before the final bar will be, that “when he knew God, he glorified Him not as God.” And this will rest heaviest against those whose knowledge was the clearest. It is a great prerogative to be able to know the infinite and glorious Creator; but it brings with it a most solemn responsibility. That blessed Being, of right, challenges the homage and obedience of His creature. What he asks of the angel, that he asks of man; that he should glorify God in his body and spirit which are His, and should thereby enjoy God forever and forever.
This is the condemnation under which man, and especially enlightened and cultivated man, rests, that while he knows God he neither glorifies Him nor enjoys Him. Our Redeemer saw this with all the clearness of the Divine Mind; and to deliver the creature from the dreadful guilt of his self-idolatry, of his disposition to worship and love the creature more than the Creator, He became incarnate, suffered and died. It cannot be a small crime, that necessitated such an apparatus of atonement and Divine influences as that of Christ and His redemption.
Estimate the guilt of coming short of the glory of God, which is the same as the guilt of idolatry and creature worship, by the nature of the provision that has been made to cancel it. If you do not actually feel that this crime is great, then argue yourself towards a juster view, by the consideration that it cost the blood of Christ to expiate it.
If you do not actually feel that the guilt is great, then argue yourself towards a juster view, by the reflection that you have known God to be supremely great, supremely good, and supremely excellent, and yet you have never, in a single feeling of your heart, or a single thought of your mind, or a single purpose of your will, honored Him. It is honor, reverence, worship, and love that He requires. These you have never rendered; and there is an infinity of guilt in the fact. That guilt will be forgiven for Christ’s sake, if you ask for forgiveness. But if you do not ask, then it will stand recorded against you for eternal ages: “When he, a rational and immortal creature, knew God, he glorified Him not as God.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man