(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 7/29/01 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Let's read Romans 1, verses 18 through 23:
Romans 1: (18) For God's wrath is revealed from Heaven on all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, holding the truth in unrighteousness, (19) because the thing known of God is clearly known within them, for God revealed [it] to them. (20) For the unseen things of Him from [the] creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things made, both His eternal power and Godhead, for them to be without excuse. (21) Because knowing God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful. But [they] became vain in their reasonings, and their undiscerning heart was darkened. (22) Professing to be wise, they became foolish (23) and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into a likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things.
Last week, we went through verses 18 through 20. We saw that God's anger, indignation, abhorrence, vengeance, hatred, repulsion is revealed from Heaven on all impiety and lawlessness of those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. We saw that God has clearly revealed even to the heathen His eternal force and divinity in creation and providence so as to leave them without excuse. We saw that even though these people knew God's power and divinity, they do not give God the glory or thank Him. We saw that their empty reasonings come from a heart with no understanding. Now, in verses 22 and 23, we are going to see these empty reasonings put to into action.
Let's look at the first phrase in this sentence - "Professing to be wise." Here are the ignorant heathen MAKING A CLAIM to have understanding. They thought they knew God well enough to be able to worship Him. I'm sure they had all kinds of elaborate tribal wisdom - you know, that kind of wisdom that those in academia revere as the "cultural heritage" of a certain group of people. You can think of all kinds of groups like that. One that readily comes to mind are the American Indians, or the Native Americans, depending on who you talk to. They have these intricate stories of their deities and how each one manifests himself to humans and how each one is to be worshiped. Same with the Hindus in India and the tribes in Africa, and many other peoples. And you know what? The one in your tribe who could tell you all about these things is called a WISE man. People flock to him for supposed "timeless wisdom." Yet what does the Bible say about such people? The Bible says that they are FOOLS. They are WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING. Turn over to Isaiah 45:20:
Isaiah 45: (20) Gather yourselves and come; draw near together, escaped ones of the nations; the ones who set up the wood of their carved image, and the ones who pray to a god who cannot save; they know nothing.
These heathen idolaters pray to a god who cannot save. What does God say about them? He says that they HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE. They profess to be wise in their worship, but they are fools.
Now before all you professing Christians listening to this shout "Amen" to this, let me tell you this: If you believe that Jesus Christ died for everyone without exception, then YOU TOO are a FOOL who professes to be wise. You are no different in your spiritual condition than the heathen who beat their drums to their gods. You, too, are praying to a god who cannot save. You believe that the blood of Christ did not - in fact, COULD not - save ANYONE in and of itself. You believe that it is NOT the work of Christ alone that makes the difference between salvation and damnation. Instead, you believe that it is the work of the SINNER that makes the difference. You might as well be dancing around in a circle pounding your drums and shouting chants to the rain god. All your worship is vain, futile, and empty. You have no knowledge. And no knowledge means that you are yet dead in your sins.
Let's go back to Romans 1 and read verse 23:
Romans 1: (23) and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into a likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things.
Here we get into what these people actually DID as a result of their vain, empty reasonings that they thought were so wise. They were IDOLATERS. They made images of people and animals. Now what's wrong with making images of people and animals? Nothing in and of itself. But this was more than that. They used these images to REPRESENT GOD. The first part of the verse says that they CHANGED the glory of God into these images. What does this mean? Well, GOD is everywhere at once, He knows everything, and He controls everything. He is also, as this verse says, INCORRUPTIBLE, meaning that He is not PERISHABLE. Do you think there's any way to PICTURE or REPRESENT such a being? Let's turn to Isaiah 40:18-28. This is God speaking:
Isaiah 40: (18) And to whom will you liken God? Or what likeness will you array to Him? (19) The craftsman pours out the casted image, the smelter spreads it with gold; and he casts the chains of silver. (20) He too poor for [that] offering chooses a tree that will not rot; he seeks a skilled artisan for him, to prepare a carved image that will not be shaken. (21) Have you not known? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning? Did you not discern [from] the foundations of the earth? (22) He who sits on the circle of the earth, even those living in it are like grasshoppers; He who stretches the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; (23) who gives potentates into nothing. He makes judges of the earth as nothing. (24) Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they are not sown; yea, their stem [is] not taking root in the earth. And He shall also blow on them, and they shall wither, and the tempest shall lift them up like stubble. (25) To whom then will you compare Me, or [am] I equaled, says the Holy One? (26) Lift up your eyes on high and look: Who has created these? Who brings out their host by number? By greatness of vigor, and might of power, He calls them all by names; not one is lacking. (27) Why will you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel; My way is hidden from Jehovah, and my judgment is passed over by my God? (28) Have you not known? Have you not heard? Jehovah, the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth; He is not faint, nor does [He] grow weary; [there is] no searching to His understanding.
How can God, the one who sits on the circle of the earth, the one who stretches the heavens like a curtain, who brings down those in power and raises up the weak, whose breath makes them whither, who calls all of the quadrillions upon quadrillions of stars by name, and who created the universe, be represented by a statue or a painting or a carving? He can't. And those who try are guilty of blasphemy, because they are attributing to God qualities that do not belong to Him, and they are NOT attributing to God qualities that DO belong to Him. For example, the verse in Romans says that they made images of people and animals. Both people and animals are finite and corruptible. To try to represent God with images of finite and corruptible things is to say that God is finite and corruptible. And to say that God is finite and corruptible is to say that God is not God. It is to worship a false god, a god who cannot save. In Isaiah 45:20, we read that they set up their images that they carved out of wood and prayed to these images. Yet these images and the gods they represent have no power to save.
Let us read some other passages that describe idolatry and idolaters.
Isaiah 44: (9) Those who form a carved image [are] all of them vanity. And their delights do not profit; and they [are] their own witnesses. They do not see, nor know, that they may be ashamed. (10) Who has formed a god, or poured out an image to no profit? (11) Behold, all his companions shall be ashamed; and the craftsmen, they [are] from men. They shall assemble, all of them shall stand; they shall dread; they shall be shamed together. (12) He carves iron with a tool; he works in the coals and forms it with hammers, and works it with his powerful arm; then he is hungry, and has no strength; he drinks no water and is weary. (13) He fashions wood, and stretches a line; he marks it with a stylus; he shapes it with a carving tool, and he marks it with a compass. And he makes it according to the figure of a man, as the beauty of a man, to sit [in the] house. (14) He cuts down cedars and takes cypress and oak, and he makes the trees of the forest strong for him. He plants a tree, and rain makes [it] grow. (15) And it shall be for a man to burn; yea, he takes of them and is warmed; and he kindles [it] and bakes bread. Yea, he makes a god and worships; he makes a carved image and bows to it. (16) He burns half of it in the fire; he eats flesh on half of it; he roasts roast, and is satisfied. Then he warms himself and says, Ah, I am warm; I have seen the fire. (17) And he makes a god of the rest, his carved image; he bows to it and worships, and prays to it, and says, Deliver me, for you [are] my god. (18) They do not know nor discern; for He has smeared their eyes from seeing, their hearts from understanding. (19) And not one turns back to his heart, nor has knowledge nor discernment to say, I have burned half of it in the fire; and I also have baked bread on its coals. I have roasted flesh and have eaten it; and I have made the rest of it into an idol. Shall I bow to a product of a tree? (20) Feeding on ashes, a deceived heart turns him aside, and he does not deliver his soul, nor say, [Is there] not a lie in my right hand?
Do you see what God is saying here? These idolaters are SO STUPID that they cannot see that they use one part of a tree to put in the fire to warm themselves and another part of the tree to carve an image and worship it. Also notice in verses 12 and 13 that the idol-maker is a hard worker and a precise worker. This is no haphazard job here. The idol-maker is zealous to make his god look perfect. He carves the wood to make it look like a human being.
Habakkuk 2: (18) What does an image profit, for its maker has carved it; a molten image, and a teacher of falsehood? For does the maker trust in his work on it, to make mute idols? (19) Woe [to] him who says to the wood, Awake! To a mute stone, Rise up, it shall teach! Behold, it [is] overlaid [with] gold and silver, but no breath is in its midst.
Notice in this passage that the idol is seen as a TEACHER. God says that it teaches falsehood. But wait a minute - verse 19 says that the idol is MUTE - meaning that it CAN'T TALK! How then does it teach falsehood? Well, it teaches lies about WHO God is and WHAT God does. The Roman Catholics see their images as those which TEACH the laity. They think that the ordinary parishioners are so unable to grasp the truth that they need pictures in order for the truth to make sense. But it's not just the Roman Catholics who think this way. How about children's books with representations of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? What's the reason for these? To TEACH the children about God. Well, all that representations of God teach children or anyone else is LIES.
Psalm 115: (1) Not to us, O Jehovah, not to us, but to Your name give glory; on account of Your mercy, on account of Your truth. (2) Why do the nations say, Where [is] their God now? (3) But our God [is] in Heaven; He has done all that He has pleased. (4) Their idols [are] silver and gold, the work of man's hands; (5) they [have] mouths, but they do not speak; they [have] eyes, but they do not see; (6) they [have] ears, but they do not hear; they [have] a nose, but they do not smell; (7) their hands do not feel; their feet do not walk; they do not mutter through their throat. (8) The ones who make them are like them, [and] everyone trusting in them.
Everyone who makes and trusts in representations of God are like their idols. They have mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands, and feet, but they do not speak, see, hear, smell, feel, or walk. In contrast with the idols that come from man's imaginations of God, the TRUE GOD is the sovereign controller; He does whatever He pleases. Anyone who believes in a god who does NOT do whatever he pleases is an idolater. Anyone who believes that God's mind is changed according to the will of man is an idolater.
Get this CRYSTAL CLEAR in your minds - BELIEVING IN or WORSHIPING or PRAYING TO a god that is NOT the God of the BIBLE is BLASPHEMOUS, DAMNABLE IDOLATRY. I've already talked about those who believe that Jesus Christ died for everyone without exception. They do not believe in the TRUE GOD, who is both a JUST GOD and a SAVIOR. They are guilty of idolatry every time they praise this god, pray to this god, talk about this god, or think about this god. But there are many other instances of idolatry we can think of. What about a god who promises to save everyone without exception? What about a god who ardently desires to save everyone without exception? What about a god who does not punish the damned in hell for eternity? What about a god who did not create the heavens and the earth? What about a god who just set everything in motion and then let creation do whatever it wanted to do? What about a god who looked down through time and chose those who would choose him? What about a god who was surprised by Adam's sin and had to go to Plan B? What about a god who regenerates people and keeps them ignorant of his righteousness? And on and on we could go. ALL of these gods are idols, and ALL who worship these gods are idolaters.
Let's get back to images for a moment. Someone might ask, "Well, what about the images that we don't really worship but which represent God or His work?" These, too, are idols. Some examples are pictures of a dove, of a lamb, of open hands, of a cross, of a shepherd, of a crown of thorns, or of a baby in a manger. These are all idols. If someone tries to defend the use of these things, ask them, WHY is it there? If any of their answers start with "It helps me ..." or "It reminds me ..." or "It teaches me ..." or anything similar, then it is an idol. Any image that is used as a help in worship is condemned as idolatry.
How are we to worship God? Are we to look toward any man-made thing to aid us in our worship or in our thoughts about who God is or what He has done? Turn over to John 4:24:
John 4: (24) God [is] a spirit, and the ones worshiping Him must worship in spirit and truth.
God is SPIRIT. He CANNOT BE represented by the works of human hands. And those who worship the true and living God worship Him in SPIRIT and in TRUTH. When we worship God, we ascribe to Him qualities that belong to Him. We praise Him for who He is and what He has done. We proclaim and meditate in the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. This is true, simple, pure worship.
Let's go on to the next sentence in Romans 1. It's in verses 24 and 25:
Romans 1: (24) Because of this, God gave them up to impurity in the lusts of [their] hearts, their bodies to be dishonored among themselves, (25) who changed the truth of God into the lie, and worshiped and served the created thing more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For the reason stated in the previous sentences, God gave them up to all kinds of immorality. Since I will go further into this when I get to verses 26 through 32, the Lord willing, I won't spend much time on this now. I just want to say that many times, for the heathen, idol worship and immorality went hand-in-hand. About two dozen passages in the Old Testament speak of human sacrifice as part of idol worship, especially child sacrifice. And a very common practice in idol worship and celebrations was drunkenness and sexual immorality. The holidays of Easter and Valentine's Day come from pagan celebrations of sexual immorality. Notice that this passage says that they were impure in the lusts of their HEARTS, and they dishonored their BODIES. The two go hand-in-hand. Heart lust leads to wickedness with the body. When Paul talked about their dishonoring of their bodies, I believe that it is specifically talking about sexual immorality.
Now let's go to verse 25. This goes back to what was said in the previous sentence. They "changed the truth of God into a lie." How did they do this? Well, the truth of God in this context is His power and Godhead, which we saw in verse 20. They saw God's force and divinity in nature and providence, but they changed this truth into a lie by making and worshiping idols. The last part of this verse gives us more of an understanding of the reasoning behind what the heathens actually did. They served the CREATED THING more than the CREATOR. So when they looked at what God had created, all the marvelous work of God's hands, they did not worship God as the omniscient, omnipotent One who did all this. Instead, they looked at the creation ITSELF and worshiped NATURE. They looked at an animal and saw how wonderfully it was made, and instead of looking to GOD as the intelligent force behind this magnificent animal, they made an image of the ANIMAL and worshiped it. We still see this today in many religions and even in atheism or environmentalism or evolutionism. Some religions actually worship certain animals. Some worship the earth itself as a goddess. But even the ones who say they don't worship any part of creation actually do. Have you ever heard someone talk about "Mother Nature" or even just "Nature" as some kind of personal being? They say things like "Nature decided" or "Nature took" or "Nature invented" or "Nature's ingenuity." They believe that "Nature" has an intelligence. They say the same things about evolution, as if evolution were an intelligent being. This is all pagan idolatry, and God has left them without excuse.
The final phrase in this sentence is "who is blessed forever. Amen." Paul sticks a doxology right in the middle of an explanation about the idolatry and immorality of the pagans. He has been talking about those who change the glory of God for idols and who change the truth of God into lies. As he is talking about these people, he sees how these people are trampling on his God. He sees them putting his God in the dirt, lowering God to the status of a mere creature. I believe that the doxology springs from these thoughts, as if to say, "They're trying to corrupt God and to make Him like them, but MY GOD, the TRUE AND LIVING GOD, is ETERNALLY BLESSED. "Blessed" means "praised." God is worthy of infinite praise and glory. Our God cannot be represented by something made by humans. He is the sovereign creator, sustainer, judge, and savior. All praise goes to the holy, righteous, just God who gave up NONE of His attributes to save His people; in fact, He manifested ALL of His attributes in PERFECT HARMONY in the salvation of His people. He is a God who CAN and DOES save, based on the work of His Only Begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is a living, uncreated being. He speaks and He hears. He is the only true God. All other images and ideas of God are idols.
Let's turn to Psalm 93 to close:
Psalm 93: (1) Jehovah reigns! He is clothed with majesty; Jehovah is clothed with strength; He girded Himself; and the world is established; it shall not be shaken. (2) Your throne [is] established from then; You [are] from everlasting. (3) The floods have lifted up; O Jehovah, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods have lifted their roaring waves. (4) Jehovah on high [is] mightier than the noise of many waters, [than] the mighty waves of the sea. (5) Your testimonies are very sure; holiness becomes Your house to length of days, O Jehovah.