ROMANS 1:28.—“As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.”
IN the opening of the most logical and systematic treatise in the New Testament, the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul enters upon a line of argument to demonstrate the ill-desert of every human creature without exception. In order to this, he shows that no excuse can be urged upon the ground of moral ignorance. He explicitly teaches that the pagan knows that there is one Supreme God (Rom. 1:20); that He is a spirit (Rom. 1:23); that He is holy and sin-hating (Rom. 1:18); that He is worthy to be worshipped (Rom. 1:21, 25); and that men ought to be thankful for His benefits (Rom. 1:21). He affirms that the heathen knows that an idol is a lie (Rom. 1:25); that licentiousness is a sin (Rom. 1:26, 32); that envy, malice, and deceit are wicked (Rom. 1:29, 32); and that those who practise such sins deserve eternal punishment (Rom. 1:32).
In these teachings and assertions, the apostle has attributed no small amount and degree of moral knowledge to man as man,—to man outside of Revelation, as well as under its shining light. The question very naturally arises: How comes it to pass that this knowledge which Divine inspiration postulates, and affirms to be innate and constitutional to the human mind, should become so vitiated? The majority of mankind are idolaters and polytheists, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that the truth that there is only one God is native to the human spirit, and that the pagan “knows” this God? The majority of men are earthly and sensual, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that there is a moral law written upon their hearts forbidding such carnality, and enjoining purity and holiness?
Some theorizers argue that because the pagan man has not obeyed the law, therefore he does not know the law; and that because he has not revered and worshipped the one Supreme Deity, therefore he does not possess the idea of any such Being. They look out upon the heathen populations and see them bowing down to stocks and stones, and witness their immersion in the abominations of heathenism, and conclude that these millions of human beings really know no better, and that therefore it is unjust to hold them responsible for their polytheism and their moral corruption.
But why do they confine this species of reasoning to the pagan world? Why do they not bring it into nominal Christendom, and apply it there? Why does not this theorist go into the midst of European civilization, into the heart of London or Paris, and gauge the moral knowledge of the sensualist by the moral character of the sensualist? Why does he not tell us that because this civilized man acts no better, therefore he knows no better? Why does he not maintain that because this voluptuary breaks all the commandments in the decalogue, therefore he must be ignorant of all the commandments in the decalogue? that because he neither fears nor loves the one only God, therefore he does not know that there is any such Being?
It will never do to estimate man’s moral knowledge by man’s moral character. He knows more than he practices. And there is not so much difference in this particular between some men in nominal Christendom, and some men in Heathendom, as is sometimes imagined. The moral knowledge of those who lie in the lower strata of Christian civilization, and those who lie in the higher strata of Paganism, is probably not so very far apart. Place the imbruted outcasts of our metropolitan population beside the Indian hunter, with his belief in the Great Spirit, and his worship without images or pictorial representations; beside the stalwart Mandingo of the high table-lands of Central Africa, with his active and enterprising spirit, carrying on manufactures and trade with all the keenness of any civilized worldling; beside the native merchants and lawyers of Calcutta, who still cling to their ancestral Boodhism, or else substitute French infidelity in its place; place the lowest of the highest beside the highest of the lowest, and tell us if the difference is so very marked. Sin, like holiness, is a mighty leveler. The “dislike to retain God” in the consciousness, the aversion of the heart towards the purity of the moral law, vitiates the native perceptions alike in Christendom and Paganism.
The theory that the pagan is possessed of such an amount and degree of moral knowledge as has been specified has awakened some apprehension in the minds of some Christian theologians, and has led them unintentionally to foster the opposite theory, which, if strictly adhered to, would lift off all responsibility from the pagan world, would bring them in innocent at the bar of God, and would render the whole enterprise of Christian missions a superfluity and an absurdity. Their motive has been good. They have feared to attribute any degree of accurate knowledge of God and the moral law, to the pagan world, lest they should thereby conflict with the doctrine of total depravity. They have mistakenly supposed, that if they should concede to every man, by virtue of his moral constitution, some correct apprehensions of ethics and natural religion, it would follow that there is some native goodness in him. But light in the intellect is very different from life in the heart.
It is one thing to know the law of God, and quite another thing to be conformed to it. Even if we should concede to the degraded pagan, or the degraded dweller in the haunts of vice in Christian lands, all the intellectual knowledge of God and the moral law that is possessed by the ruined archangel himself, we should not be adding a particle to his moral character or his moral excellence. There is nothing of a holy quality in the mere intellectual perception that there is one Supreme Deity, and that He has issued a pure and holy law for the guidance of all rational beings. The mere doctrine of the Divine Unity will save no man. “Thou believest,” says St. James, “that there is one God; thou doest well, the devils also believe and tremble.” Satan himself is a monotheist, and knows very clearly all the commandments of God; but his heart and will are in demoniacal antagonism with them.
And so it is, only in a lower degree, in the instance of the pagan, and of the natural man, in every age, and in every clime. He knows more than he practices. This intellectual perception, therefore, this inborn constitutional apprehension, instead of lifting up man into a higher and more favorable position before the eternal bar, casts him down to perdition. If he knew nothing at all of his Maker and his duty, he could not be held responsible, and could not be summoned to judgment. As St. Paul affirms: “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” But if, when he knew God in some degree, he glorified him not as God to that degree; and if, when the moral law was written upon the heart he went counter to its requirements, and heard the accusing voice of his own conscience; then his mouth must be stopped, and he must become guilty before his Judge, like any and every other disobedient creature.
It is this serious and damning fact in the history of man upon the globe, that St. Paul brings to view, in the passage which we have selected as the foundation of this discourse. He accounts for all the idolatry and sensuality, all the darkness and vain imaginations of paganism, by referring to the aversion of the natural heart towards the one only holy God. “Men,” he says,—these pagan men,—“did not like to retain God in their knowledge.” The primary difficulty was in their affections, and not in their understandings. They knew too much for their own comfort in sin. The contrast between the Divine purity that was mirrored in their conscience, and the sinfulness that was wrought into their heart and will, rendered this inborn constitutional idea of God a very painful one. It was a fire in the bones. If the Psalmist, a renewed man, yet not entirely free from human corruption, could say: “I thought of God and was troubled,” much more must the totally depraved man of paganism be filled with terror when, in the thoughts of his heart, in the hour when the accusing conscience was at work, he brought to mind the one great God of gods whom he did not glorify, and whom he had offended. It was no wonder, therefore, that he did not like to retain the idea of such a Being in his consciousness, and that he adopted all possible expedients to get rid of it.
The apostle informs us that the pagan actually called in his imagination to his aid, in order to extirpate, if possible, all his native and rational ideas and convictions upon religious subjects. He became vain in his imaginations, and his foolish heart as a consequence was darkened, and he changed the glory of the incorruptible God, the spiritual unity of the Deity, into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Rom. 1:21–23). He invented idolatry, and all those “gay religions full of pomp and gold,” in order to blunt the edge of that sharp spiritual conception of God which was continually cutting and lacerating his wicked and sensual heart. Hiding himself amidst the columns of his idolatrous temples, and under the smoke of his idolatrous incense, he thought like Adam to escape from the view and inspection of that Infinite One who, from the creation of the world downward, makes known to all men his eternal power and godhead; who, as St. Paul taught the philosophers of Athens, is not far from any one of his rational creatures (Acts 17:27); and who, as the same apostle taught the pagan Lycaonians, though in times past he suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, yet left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave them rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. (Acts 14:16, 17).
The first step in the process of mutilating the original idea of God, as a unity and an unseen Spirit, is seen in those pantheistic religions which lie behind all the mythologies of the ancient world, like a nebulous vapor out of which the more distinct idols and images of paganism are struggling. Here the notion of the Divine unity is still preserved; but the Divine personality and holiness are lost. God becomes a vague impersonal Power, with no moral qualities, and no religious attributes; and it is difficult to say which is worst in its moral influence, this pantheism which while retaining the doctrine of the Divine unity yet denudes the Deity of all that renders him an object of either love or reverence, or the grosser idolatries that succeeded it. For man cannot love, with all his mind and heart and soul and strength, a vast impersonal force working blindly through infinite space and everlasting time.
And the second and last stage in this process of vitiating the true idea of God appears in that polytheism in the midst of which St. Paul lived, and labored, and preached, and died; in that seductive and beautiful paganism, that classical idolatry, which still addresses the human taste in such a fascinating manner, in the Venus de Medici, and the Apollo Belvidere. The idea of the unity of God is now mangled and cut up into the “gods many” and the “lords many,” into the thirty thousand divinities of the pagan pantheon. This completes the process. God now gives his guilty creature over to these vain imaginations of naturalism, materialism, and idolatry, and to an increasingly darkening mind, until in the lowest forms of heathenism he so distorts and suppresses the concreated idea of the Deity that some speculatists assert that it does not belong to his constitution, and that his Maker never endowed him with it. How is the gold become dim! How is the most fine gold changed!
But it will be objected that all this lies in the past. This is the account of a process that has required centuries, yea millenniums, to bring about. A hundred generations have been engaged in transmuting the monotheism with which the human race started, into the pantheism and polytheism in which the great majority of it is now involved. How do you establish the guilt of those at the end of the line? How can you charge upon the present generation of pagans the same culpability that Paul imputed to their ancestors eighteen centuries ago, and that Noah the preacher of righteousness denounced upon the antediluvian pagan? As the deteriorating process advances, does not the guilt diminish? and now, in these ends of the ages, and in these dark habitations of cruelty, has not the culpability run down to a minimum, which God in the day of judgment will “wink at?”
We answer No: Because the structure of the human mind is precisely the same that it was when the Sodomites held down the truth in unrighteousness, and the Roman populace turned up their thumbs that they might see the last drops of blood ebb slowly from the red gash in the dying gladiator’s side. Man, in his deepest degradation, in his most hardened depravity, is still a rational intelligence; and though he should continue to sin on indefinitely, through cycles of time as long as those of geology, he cannot unmake himself; he cannot unmould his immortal essence, and absolutely eradicate all his moral ideas.
Paganism itself has its fluctuations of moral knowledge. The early Roman, in the days of Numa, was highly ethical in his views of the Deity, and his conceptions of moral law. Varro informs us that for a period of one hundred and seventy years the Romans worshipped their gods without any images; and Sallust denominates these pristine Romans “religiosissimi mortales.” And how often does the missionary discover a tribe or a race, whose moral intelligence is higher than that of the average of paganism. Nay, the same race, or tribe, passes from one phase of polytheism to another; in one instance exhibiting many of the elements and truths of natural religion, and in another almost entirely suppressing them. These facts prove that the pagan man is under supervision; that he is under the righteous despotism of moral ideas and convictions; that God is not far from him; that he lives and moves and has his being in his Maker; and that God does not leave himself without witness in his constitutional structure. Therefore it is, that this sea of rational intelligence thus surges and sways in the masses of paganism; sometimes dashing the creature up the heights, and sometimes sending him down into the depths.
But while this subject has this general application to mankind outside of Revelation; while it throws so much light upon the question of the heathens’ responsibility and guilt; while it tends to deepen our interest in the work of Christian missions, and to stimulate us to obey our Redeemer’s command to go and preach the gospel to them, in order to save them from the wrath of God which abideth upon them as it does upon ourselves; while this subject has these profound and far-reaching applications, it also presses with sharpness and energy upon the case, and the position, of millions of men in Christendom. And to this more particular aspect of the theme, we ask attention for a moment.
This same process of corruption, and vitiation of a correct knowledge of God, which we have seen to go on upon a large scale in the instance of the heathen world, also often goes on in the instance of a single individual under the light of Revelation itself Have you never known a person to have been well educated in childhood and youth respecting the character and government of God, and yet in middle life and old age to have altered and corrupted all his early and accurate apprehensions, by the gradual adoption of contrary views and sentiments?
In his childhood and youth, he believed that God distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked, that he rewards the one and punishes the other, and hence he cherished a salutary fear of his Maker that agreed well with the dictates of his unsophisticated reason, and the teachings of nature and revelation. But when he became a man, he put away these childish things, in a far different sense from that of the Apostle. As the years rolled along, he succeeded, by a career of worldliness and of sensuality, in expelling this stock of religious knowledge, this right way of conceiving of God, from his mind, and now at the close of life and upon the very brink of eternity and of doom, this very same person is as unbelieving respecting the moral attributes of Jehovah, and as unfearing with regard to them, as if the entire experience and creed of his childhood and youth were a delusion and a lie. This rational and immortal creature in the morning of his existence looked up into the clear sky with reverence, being impressed by the eternal power and godhead that are there, and when he had committed a sin be felt remorseful and guilty; but the very same person now sins recklessly and with flinty hardness of heart, casts sullen or scowling glances upward, and says: “There is no God.”
Compare the Edward Gibbon whose childhood expanded under the teachings of a beloved Christian matron trained in the school of the devout William Law, and whose youth exhibited unwonted religious sensibility,—compare this Edward Gibbon with the Edward Gibbon whose manhood was saturated with utter unbelief and whose departure into the dread hereafter was, in his own phrase, “a leap in the dark.”
Compare the Aaron Burr whose blood was deduced from one of the most saintly lineages in the history of the American church, and all of whose early life was embosomed in ancestral piety,—compare this Aaron Burr with the Aaron Burr whose middle life and prolonged old age was unimpressible as marble to all religious ideas and influences. In both of these instances, it was the aversion of the heart that for a season (not for eternity, be it remembered) quenched out the light in the head. These men, like the pagan of whom St. Paul speaks, did not like to retain a holy God in their knowledge, and He gave them over to a reprobate mind.
These fluctuations and changes in doctrinal belief, both in the general and the individual mind, furnish materials for deep reflection by both the philosopher and the Christian; and such an one will often be led to notice the exact parallel and similarity there is between religious deterioration in races, and religious deterioration in individuals. The dislike to retain a knowledge already furnished, because it is painful, because it rebukes worldliness and sin, is that which ruins both mankind in general, and the man in particular. Were the heart only conformed to the truth, the truth never would be corrupted, never would be even temporarily darkened in the human soul. Should the pagan, himself, actually obey the dictates of his own reason and conscience, he would find the light that was in him growing still clearer and brighter. God himself, the author of his rational mind, and the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, would reward him for his obedience by granting him yet more knowledge.
We cannot say in what particular mode the Divine providence would bring it about, but it is as certain as that God lives, that if the pagan world should act up to the degree of light which they enjoy, they would be conducted ultimately to the truth as it is in Jesus, and would be saved by the Redeemer of the world. The instance of the Roman centurion Cornelius is a case in point. This was a thoughtful and serious pagan. It is indeed very probable that his military residence in Palestine had cleared up, to some degree, his natural intuitions of moral truth; but we know that he was ignorant of the way of salvation through Christ, from the fact that the apostle Peter was instructed in a vision to go and preach it unto him. The sincere endeavor of this Gentile, this then pagan in reference to Christianity, to improve the little knowledge which he had, met with the Divine approbation, and was crowned with a saving acquaintance with the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Peter himself testified to this, when, after hearing from the lips of Cornelius the account of his previous life, and of the way in which God had led him, “he opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34, 35).1
But such instances as this of Cornelius are not one in millions upon millions. The light shines in the darkness that comprehends it not. Almost without an exception, so far as the human eye can see, the unevangelized world holds the truth in unrighteousness, and does not like to retain the idea of a holy God, and a holy law, in its knowledge. Therefore the knowledge continually diminishes; the light of natural reason and conscience grows dimmer and dimmer; and the soul sinks down in the mire of sin and sensuality, apparently devoid of all the higher ideas of God, and law, and immortal life.
We have thus considered the truth which St. Paul teaches in the text, that the ultimate source of all human error is in the character of the human heart. Mankind do not like to retain God in their knowledge, and therefore they come to possess a reprobate mind. The origin of idolatry, and of infidelity, is not in the original constitution with which the Creator endowed the creature, but in that evil heart of unbelief by which he departed from the living God. Sinful man shapes his creed in accordance with his wishes, and not in accordance with the unbiased decisions of his reason and conscience. He does not like to think of a holy God, and therefore he denies that God is holy. He does not like to think of the eternal punishment of sin, and therefore he denies that punishment is eternal. He does not like to be pardoned through the substituted sufferings of the Son of God, and therefore he denies the doctrine of atonement. He does not like the truth that man is so totally alienated from God that he needs to be renewed in the spirit of his mind by the Holy Ghost, and therefore he denies the doctrines of depravity and regeneration.
Run through the creed which the Church has lived by and died by, and you will discover that the only obstacle to its reception is the aversion of the human heart. It is a rational creed in all its parts and combinations. It has outlived the collisions and conflicts of a hundred schools of infidelity that have had their brief day, and died with their devotees. A hundred systems of philosophy falsely so called have come and gone, but the one old religion of the patriarchs, and the prophets, and the apostles, holds on its way through the centuries, conquering and to conquer. Can it be that sheer imposture and error have such a tenacious vitality as this? If reason is upon the side of infidelity, why does not infidelity remain one and the same unchanging thing, like Christianity, from age to age, and subdue all men unto it? If Christianity is a delusion and a lie, why does it not die out, and disappear?
The difficulty is not upon the side of the human reason, but of the human heart. Skeptical men do not like the religion of the New Testament, these doctrines of sin and grace, and therefore they shape their creed by their sympathies and antipathies; by what they wish to have true; by their heart rather than by their head. As the Founder of Christianity said to the Jews, so he says to every man who rejects His doctrine of grace and redemption: “Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life.” It is an inclination of the will, and not a conviction of the reason, that prevents the reception of the Christian religion.
Among the many reflections that are suggested by this subject and its discussion, our limits permit only the following:
1. It betokens deep wickedness, in any man, to change the truth of God into a lie,—to substitute a false theory in religion for the true one.
“Woe unto them,” says the prophet, “that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” There is no form of moral evil that is more hateful in the sight of Infinite Truth, than that intellectual depravity which does not like to retain a holy God in its knowledge, and therefore mutilates the very idea of the Deity, and attempts to make him other than he is. There is no sinner that will be visited with a heavier vengeance than that cool and calculating man, who, because he dislikes the unyielding purity of the moral law, and the awful sanctions by which it is accompanied, deliberately alters it to suit his wishes and his self-indulgence. If a person is tempted and falls into sin, and yet does not change his religious creed in order to escape the reproaches of conscience and the fear of retribution, there is hope that the orthodoxy of his head may result, by God’s blessing upon his own truth, in sorrow for the sin and a forsaking thereof.
A man, for instance, who amidst all his temptations and transgressions still retains the truth taught him from the Scriptures, at his mother’s knees, that a finally impenitent sinner will go down to eternal torment, feels a powerful check upon his passions, and is often kept from outward and actual transgressions by his creed. But if he deliberately, and by an act of will, says in his heart: “There is no hell;” if he substitutes for the theory that renders the commission of sin dangerous and fearful, a theory that relieves it from all danger and all fear, there is no hope that he will ever cease from sinning. On the contrary, having brought his head into harmony with his heart; having adjusted his theory to his practice; having shaped his creed by his passions; having changed the truth of God into a lie; he then plunges into sin with an abandonment and a momentum that is awful. In the phrase of the prophet, he “draws iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart-rope.”
It is here that we see the deep guilt of those, who, by false theories of God and man and law and penalty, tempt the young or the old to their eternal destruction. It is sad and fearful, when the weak physical nature is plied with all the enticements of earth and sense; but it is yet sadder and more fearful, when the intellectual nature is sought to be perverted and ensnared by specious theories that annihilate the distinction between virtue and vice, that take away all holy fear of God, and reverence for His law, that represent the everlasting future either as an everlasting elysium for all, or else as an eternal sleep. The demoralization, in this instance, is central and radical. It is in the brain, in the very understanding itself. If the foundations themselves of morals and religion are destroyed, what can be done for the salvation of the creature? A heavy woe is denounced against any and every one who tempts a fellow-being.
Temptation implies malice. It is Satanic. It betokens a desire to ruin an immortal spirit. When therefore the siren would allure a human creature from the path of virtue, the inspiration of God utters a deep and bitter curse against her. But when the cold-blooded Mephistopheles endeavors to sophisticate the reason, to debauch the judgment, to sear the conscience; when the temptation is addressed to the intellect, and the desire of the tempter is to overthrow the entire religious creed of a human being,—perhaps a youth just entering upon that hazardous enterprise of life in which he needs every jot and tittle of eternal truth to guide and protect him,—when the enticement assumes this purely mental form and aspect, it betokens the most malignant and heaven-daring guilt in the tempter. And we may be certain that the retribution that will be meted out to it, by Him who is true and The Truth; who abhors all falsehood and all lies with an infinite intensity; will be terrible beyond conception. “Woe unto you ye blind guides! Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell! If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things that are written in this book.”
2. In the second place, we perceive, in the light of this subject, the great danger of not reducing religious truth to practice.
There are two fatal hazards in not obeying the doctrines of the Bible while yet there is an intellectual assent to them. The first is, that these doctrines shall themselves become diluted and corrupted. So long as the affectionate submission of the heart is not yielded to their authority; so long as there is any dislike towards their holy claims; there is great danger that, as in the instance of the pagan, they will not be retained in the knowledge. The sinful man becomes weary of a form of doctrine that continually rebukes him, and gradually changes it into one that is less truthful and restraining. But a second and equally alarming danger is, that the heart shall become accustomed to the truth, and grow hard and indifferent towards it. There are a multitude of persons who hear the word of God and never dream of disputing it, who yet, alas, never dream of obeying it. To such the living truth of the gospel becomes a petrifaction, and a savor of death unto death.
We urge you, therefore, ye who know the doctrines of the law and the doctrines of the gospel, to give an affectionate and hearty assent to them both. When the divine Word asserts that you are guilty, and that you cannot stand in the judgment before God, make answer: “It is so, it is so.” Practically and deeply acknowledge the doctrine of human guilt and corruption. Let it no longer be a theory in the head, but a humbling salutary consciousness in the heart. And when the divine Word affirms that God so loved the world that he gave his Only-Begotten Son to redeem it, make a quick and joyful response: “It is so, it is so.” Instead of changing the truth of God into a lie, as the guilty world have been doing for six thousand years, change it into a blessed consciousness of the soul. Believe what you know; and then what you know will be the wisdom of God to your salvation.
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man