Romans 1:21
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
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(21) They knew enough of God to know that thanks and praise were due to Him; but neither of these did they offer. They put aside the natural instinct of adoration, and fell to speculations, which only led them farther and farther from the truth. The new knowledge of which they went in quest proved to be fiction; the old knowledge that they had was obscured and lost by their folly. Starting with two things—a portion of enlightenment on the one hand, and the natural tendency of the human mind to error on the other, the latter prevailed, and the former became eclipsed.

But became vain in their imaginations.—They were frustrated—reached no good and sound result with their speculations.

Their foolish heart.—Not the same word as “fools,” in the next verse. Their unintelligent heart; their heart which, by itself, was endowed with no special faculty of discernment such as to enable them to dispense with the enlightenment from above.

Romans 1:21-23. “Because that when they knew God — The writings of Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Cicero, and other philosophers, which still remain, together with the quotations made by Just. Martyr and Clem. Alexandrinus from those which are lost, prove that the learned heathen, though ignorant of the way of salvation, were not entirely unacquainted with the unity and spirituality of God, and had pretty just notions of his perfections, of the creation and government of the world, and of the duties which men owe to God and to one another. Their sin, therefore, in worshipping idols, and in concealing the true God from the vulgar, did not proceed so much from ignorance as from corruption of heart.” They glorified him not as God — Did not esteem him, pay homage to him, or worship and serve him in a manner worthy of him, and consistent with those apprehensions they had, or might have had, of him; neither were thankful — Grateful for his benefits. As the true God was not the object of the popular religion, no public thanksgivings were offered to him in any heathen country; and with respect to the private conduct of individuals, though there are still extant hymns in honour of the heathen gods, written by Orpheus, Homer, Pindar, and Horace, who were themselves philosophers as well as poets, we have never heard of any psalm or hymn composed by any heathen poet or philosopher in honour of the true God. It is observable, that thankfulness to God for his mercies, is here represented as a principal branch of religion, and undoubtedly no principle can be nobler, nor can any have a greater or more extensive influence. But became vain in their imaginations — Absurd, stupid, and ridiculous in their reasonings, concerning God’s nature and worship; entangling themselves with a thousand unprofitable subtleties, which only tended to alienate their minds more and more from every truly religious sentiment and disposition. And their foolish, ασυνετος, their undiscerning, unintelligent, imprudent heart was darkened — Instead of being enlightened by these sophistries, it was more and more involved in ignorance and error, and rendered impenetrable to the simplicity of the most important truths. What a terrible instance have we of this in the writings of Lucretius! What vain reasonings, yet how dark a heart, amid pompous professions of wisdom! Professing themselves to be wise — Greek, φασκοντες ειναι σοφοι, saying that they were wise; “cum se dicerent, aut se dici sinerent sapientes:” when they called, or suffered themselves to be called, wise men. — Grotius. It evidently refers to their assuming the philosophic character, and to the pride they took in the title of wise men, or lovers of wisdom. They became fools — Degrading, in the lowest and most infamous manner, the reason which they so arrogantly pretended to improve, and almost to engross. Thus the apostle finely ridicules that ostentation of wisdom which the Greek philosophers made, by taking to themselves the name of wise men. And his irony was the more pungent, in that it was put into a writing addressed to the Romans, who were great admirers of the Greeks. And changed, &c. — As if he had said, As their folly and wickedness were evident in a variety of other vices, in which these heathen philosophers joined with the vulgar, so particularly in the early and almost universal prevalence of idolatry among them; for they changed the glory — The unutterable glory, of the incorruptible and immortal God — (the word αφθαρτος means both) all the majestic splendours, in which he shines forth through earth and heaven, into an image, made by their own hands, like to corruptible and mortal man — Which, how elegantly soever it might be formed, was an abominable and insufferable degradation of the infinitely perfect and eternal Godhead, had their folly proceeded no further. But, not content with this, they set up as emblems of Deity and objects of worship, brute creatures and their images: birds, four-footed beasts, and creeping things — Even such vile reptiles as beetles, and various kinds of serpents, which creep on the dust. The learned Egyptians in particular, as is well known, worshipped dogs, snakes, nay, and even vegetables. We may observe here, 1st, That the word corruptible, applied to man, signifies not only his being liable to dissolution, but to moral pollution; and the term incorruptible, applied to God, signifies that he is not liable to either. 2d, “The great evil of the heathen idolatry consisted in their setting up the images of men and beasts in their temples as representations of the Deity, by which the vulgar were led to believe that God was of the same form, nature, and qualities with the animals represented by these images. And the persons who thus changed the glory of God were not the common people among the Greeks, but the legislators, magistrates, priests, and philosophers; for they were the persons who framed the public religion in all the heathen countries; who established it by their laws, and recommended it by their example.” — Macknight.

1:18-25 The apostle begins to show that all mankind need the salvation of the gospel, because none could obtain the favour of God, or escape his wrath by their own works. For no man can plead that he has fulfilled all his obligations to God and to his neighbour; nor can any truly say that he has fully acted up to the light afforded him. The sinfulness of man is described as ungodliness against the laws of the first table, and unrighteousness against those of the second. The cause of that sinfulness is holding the truth in unrighteousness. All, more or less, do what they know to be wrong, and omit what they know to be right, so that the plea of ignorance cannot be allowed from any. Our Creator's invisible power and Godhead are so clearly shown in the works he has made, that even idolaters and wicked Gentiles are left without excuse. They foolishly followed idolatry; and rational creatures changed the worship of the glorious Creator, for that of brutes, reptiles, and senseless images. They wandered from God, till all traces of true religion must have been lost, had not the revelation of the gospel prevented it. For whatever may be pretended, as to the sufficiency of man's reason to discover Divine truth and moral obligation, or to govern the practice aright, facts cannot be denied. And these plainly show that men have dishonoured God by the most absurd idolatries and superstitions; and have degraded themselves by the vilest affections and most abominable deeds.Because that - The apostle here is showing that it was right to condemn people for their sins. To do this it was needful to show them that they had the knowledge of God, and the means of knowing what was right; and that the true source of their sins and idolatries was a corrupt and evil heart.

When they knew God - Greek, "knowing God." That is, they had an acquaintance with the existence and many of the perfections of one God. That many of the philosophers of Greece and Rome had a knowledge of one God, there can be no doubt. This was undoubtedly the case with Pythagoras, who had traveled extensively in Egypt, and even in Palestine; and also with Plato and his disciples. This point is clearly shown by Cudworth in his Intellectual System, and by Dr. Warburton in the Divine Legation of Moses. Yet the knowledge of this great truth was not communicated to the people. It was confined to the philosophers; and not improbably one design of the mysteries celebrated throughout Greece was to keep up the knowledge of the one true God. Gibbon has remarked that "the philosophers regarded all the popular superstitions as equally false: the common people as equally true; and the politicians as equally useful." This was probably a correct account of the prevalent feelings among the ancients. A single extract from "Cicero" (de Natura Deorum, lib. ii. c. 6) will show that they had the knowledge of one God. "There is something in the nature of things, which the mind of man, which reason, which human power cannot effect; and certainly what produces this must be better than man. What can this be called but "God?" Again (c. 2), "What can be so plain and manifest, when we look at heaven, and contemplate heavenly things, as that there is some divinity of most excellent mind, by which these things are governed?"

They glorified him not as God - They did not "honor" him as God. This was the true source of their abominations. To glorify him "as God" is to regard with proper reverence all his perfections and laws; to venerate his name, his power, his holiness, and presence, etc. As they were not inclined to do this, so they were given over to their own vain and wicked desires. Sinners are not willing to give honor to God, as God. They are not pleased with his perfections; and therefore the mind becomes fixed on other objects, and the heart gives free indulgence to its own sinful desires. A willingness to honor God as God - to reverence, love, and obey him, would effectually restrain people from sin.

Neither were thankful - The obligation to be "thankful" to God for his mercies, for the goodness which we experience, is plain and obvious. Thus, we judge of favors received of our fellow-men. the apostle here clearly regards this unwillingness to render gratitude to God for his mercies as one of the causes of their subsequent corruption and idolatry. The reasons of this are the following.

(1) the effect of ingratitude is to render the heart hard and insensible.

(2) people seek to forget the Being to whom they are unwilling to exercise gratitude.

(3) to do this, they fix their affections on other things; and hence, the pagan expressed their gratitude not to God, but to the sun, and moon, and stars, etc., the mediums by which God bestows his favors upon people. And we may here learn that an unwillingness to thank God for his mercies is one of the most certain causes of alienation and hardness of heart.

But became vain - To "become vain," with us, means to be elated, or to be self-conceited, or to seek praise from others. The meaning here seems to be, they became foolish, frivolous in their thoughts and reasonings. They acted foolishly; they employed themselves in useless and frivolous questions, the effect of which was to lead the mind further and further from the truth respecting God.

Imaginations - This word means properly "thoughts," then "reasonings," and also "disputations." Perhaps our word, "speculations," would convey its meaning here. It implies that they were unwilling to honor God, and being unwilling to honor him, they commenced those speculations which resulted in all their vain and foolish opinions about idols, and the various rites of idolatrous worship. Many of the speculations and inquiries of the ancients were among the most vain and senseless which the mind can conceive.

And their foolish heart - The word "heart" is not infrequently used to denote the mind, or the understanding. We apply it to denote the affections. But such was not its common use, among the Hebrews. We speak of the head when we refer to the understanding, but this was not the case with the Hebrews. They spoke of the heart in this manner, and in this sense it is clearly used in this place; see Ephesians 1:18; Romans 2:15; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Peter 1:19. The word "foolish" means literally what is without "understanding;" Matthew 15:16.

Was darkened - Was rendered obscure, so that they did not perceive and comprehend the truth. The process which is stated in this verse is,

(1) That people had the knowledge of God.

(2) that they refused to honor him when they knew him, and were opposed to his character and government.

(3) that they were ungrateful.


21. Because that, when they knew God—that is, while still retaining some real knowledge of Him, and ere they sank down into the state next to be described.

they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful—neither yielded the adoration due to Himself, nor rendered the gratitude which His beneficence demanded.

but became vain—(compare Jer 2:5).

in their imaginations—thoughts, notions, speculations, regarding God; compare Mt 15:19; Lu 2:35; 1Co 3:20, Greek.

and their foolish—"senseless," "stupid."

heart—that is, their whole inner man.

was darkened—How instructively is the downward progress of the human soul here traced!

Because; either this must be referred to the words immediately foregoing, and then it is a reason why the Gentiles are inexcusable,

because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, &c.; or else it refers to Romans 1:18, and then it is a proof of their withholding the truth in unrighteousness, because, & c.

They knew God; they had a natural knowledge of God, it was taught them, as before, by the light of natnre, and by the book of the creatures. Though this was not sufficient to save them, yet it was sufficient to save them without excuse.

They glorified him not as God; they did not conceive of him and worship him as became his Divine excellencies and perfections; see Psalm 29:2.

Neither were thankful; they did not own God to be the Author and Giver of all the good things they enjoyed, and return him thanks accordingly; but referred all to chance and fortune, their own prudence and providence, the influence of the stars, &c.

But became vain in their imaginations, or reasonings. This hath chief respect to the conception and opinions that the heathen framed to themselves of the Divine Being. For though some denied there was a God, and others doubted thereof, yet generally it was acknowledged by them; yea, some owned a multiplicity of gods, and those either corporeal or incorporeal. Others acknowledged but one God, as Plato, Aristotle, &c.; but then they either denied his providence, as the Peripatetics, or tied him to second or inferior causes, as the Stoics. This is the vanity which the apostle here speaketh of. Note also, that idols, the frame of idle brains, are called vanities: see Deu 32:21 Jeremiah 10:15 Acts 14:15.

And their foolish heart was darkened: by the heart is meant the mind, their very understandings were darkened, the natural reason in them was obscured. This was a just judgment upon them for their abuse of knowledge, and pride, of which in the next verse. {see Romans 1:22}

Because that when they knew God,.... Though they had such a knowledge of the being and perfections of God, yet

they glorified him not as God. They neither thought nor spoke honourably of him; nor did they ascribe those perfections to him, which belonged to him; they did not adhere to him as the one and only God, nor honour him as the Creator of all things out of nothing, and as the sole Governor of the universe; they did not glorify him by the internal exercise of fear of him, love to him, or trust in him, nor by any external worship suitable to his nature, and their own notions of him, Seneca is an instance of this, of whom Austin (f) says,

"that he worshipped what he found fault with, did what he reproved, and adored that which he blamed.''

Neither were thankful; neither for the knowledge of things they had, which they ascribed to themselves; nor for their mercies, which they imputed to second causes:

but became vain in their imaginations; the vanity or their minds was the spring and source of their evil conduct; which may design the wickedness of their hearts, and the imaginations thereof, which were evil, and that continually; the pride of their natures the carnality and weakness of their reasonings, and the whole system of their vain philosophy; and hence they ran into polytheism, or the worshipping of many gods:

and their foolish heart was darkened; where they thought their great wisdom lay: darkness is natural to the hearts and understandings of all men, which is increased by personal iniquity; Satan is concerned in improving it, and God sometimes gives up the hearts of persons to judicial blindness, which was the case of these men.

(f) De Civitate Dei, l. 6. c. 10.

Because that, when they knew God, they {e} glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became {f} vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

(e) They did not honour him with that honour and service which was appropriate for his everlasting power and Godhead.

(f) As if he said, became so corrupt in themselves.

Romans 1:21 ff. εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους would naturally express purpose: to make men inexcusable is one, though not the only or the ultimate, intention of God in giving this revelation. But the διότι almost forces us to take the εἰς τὸ as expressing result: so that they are inexcusable, because, etc. (see Burton’s Moods and Tenses, § 411). In Romans 1:21-23 the wrong course taken by humanity is described. Nature shows us that God is to be glorified and thanked, i.e., nature reveals Him to be great and good. But men were not content to accept the impression made on them by nature; they fell to reasoning upon it, and in their reasonings (διαλογισμοί, “perverse self-willed reasonings or speculations,” S. and H.) were made vain (ἐματαιώθησαν); the result stultified the process; their instinctive perception of God became confused and uncertain; their unintelligent heart, the seat of the moral consciousness, was darkened. In asserting their wisdom they became fools, and showed it conspicuously in their idolatries. They resigned the glory of the incorruptible God (i.e., the incorruptible God, all glorious as He was, and as He was seen in nature to be), and took instead of Him some image of a corruptible, even of a vile creature. The expression ἤλλαξαν τὴν δόξαν κ.τ.λ. is borrowed in part from Psalm 105:20 (LXX): ἠλλάξαντο τὴν δόξαν αὐτῶν ἐν ὁμοιώματι μόσχου ἔσθοντος χόρτον. The reduplication of the same idea in ἐν ὁμοιώματι εἰκόνος shows the indignant contempt with which the Apostle looked on this empty and abject religion in which God had been lost. The birds, quadrupeds and reptiles could all be illustrated from Egypt.

With Romans 1:24 the Apostle turns from this sin to its punishment. Because of it (διὸ) God gave them up. To lose God is to lose everything: to lose the connection with Him involved in constantly glorifying and giving Him thanks, is to sink into an abyss of darkness, intellectual and moral. It is to become fitted for wrath at last, under the pressure of wrath all the time. Such, in idea, is the history of humanity to Paul, as interpreted by its issue in the moral condition of the pagan world when he wrote. Exceptions are allowed for (Romans 2:10), but this is the position as a whole. παρέδωκεν in all three places (Romans 1:24, εἰς ἀκαθαρσίαν; Romans 1:26, εἰς πάθη ἀτιμίας; Romans 1:28, εἰς ἀδόκιμον νοῦν) expresses the judicial action of God. The sensual impurity of religions in which the incorruptible God had been resigned for the image of an animal, that could not but creep into the imagination of the worshippers and debase it, was a Divine judgment. τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν ἐν αὐτοῖς, in accordance with the conception of a judicial act, expresses the Divine purpose—that their bodies might be dishonoured among them. For gen of purpose, see Winer, 408 ff. (where, however, a different construction is given for this passage, τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι being made to depend immediately on ἁκαθαρσίαν).

21. because that, when they knew God] i.e. as primevally revealed, and then constantly witnessed to by the visible Creation as Eternal and Omnipotent. “To know God” is a phrase capable of many degrees of meaning, from the rational certainty of a Supreme Personal Maker and Lord up to that holy intimacy of divinely-given communion with the Father and the Son, to which the words of John 17:3 refer. In this passage all that is necessary to understand is the certainty (however learnt) of the existence of a Personal Omnipotent Creator.

they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful] The verbs throughout this passage are aorists. The process of declension from the truth is not dwelt upon, so much as the fact that it did take place, at whatever rate. There was a time when man, although knowledge of God had been given him, ceased to praise Him and to thank Him for His “great glory” and His rich gifts; turning the praise and thanks towards idol-objects instead. We must note that these first marks of decline (failure to praise and to thank Him), indicate a subtle and lasting secret of idolatry. Man, conscious of guilt before the Eternal, shrinks from direct worship. In mistaken reverence, it may be, he turns away to “the Creature,” to address his praises there. But the result is inevitable; the God unworshipped rapidly becomes unknown.

but became vain in their imaginations] “Vain,” here, as often in Scripture, is “wrong,” morally as well as mentally. “Imaginations” is rather thinkings: the Gr. is a word often rendered “thoughts,” (as e.g. Matthew 15:19.) In Php 2:14 it is rendered “disputings;” in 1 Timothy 2:8, “doubting.” The verb is used in e.g. Luke 12:17, for the balancing of thing against thing in the mind. Both verb and noun, when the context gives them an unfavourable reference, indicate a habit of captious and hesitating thought such as would ignore plain testimony and attend to abstract difficulties by preference. Thus here, man, growing unused to adoration of his God, fell to independent thinking, (in however rude a form,) and “in” this, occupied in this, “became vain,” went astray altogether.

their foolish heart] “Foolish,” more strictly unintelligent; failing to see connexions and consequences. Same word as Matthew 15:16. The “heart” may here mean merely the intellect, as perhaps in Mark 2:6; Mark 2:8. It is almost always difficult, however, to trace in Scripture (as indeed so often in constant experience) the border between reason and conscience. “Heart” certainly includes both in the majority of N. T. passages.

Romans 1:21. Διὁτι. This διότι is resumed from Romans 1:19. They did not sin in ignorance, but knowingly.—Θεὸν ὡς Θεὸν, God as God). This is ἡ ἀλήθεια, the truth [of God, Romans 1:25], the perfection of conformity with nature,[14] where worship corresponds to the divine nature. Comp. in contrast with this, Galatians 4:8 [when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which] by nature are no Gods.—Θεὸν, God). [They glorified Him not as the God] eternal, almighty, and to be continually honoured by showing forth His glory, and by thanksgiving.—ἐδόξασαν ἢ ἐυχαρίστησαν, they glorified or were thankful) We ought to render thanks for benefits; and to glorify Him on account of the divine perfections themselves, contrary to the opinion of Hobbes. If it were possible for a mind to exist extraneous to God, and not created by God, still that mind would be bound to praise God.—), or, at least.—ἐματαιώθησαν) This verb and ἐσκοτίσθη have a reciprocal force. הבל, μάταια, ματαιο͂υσθαι are frequently applied to idols, and to their worship and worshippers, 2 Kings 17:15; Jeremiah 2:5; for the mind is conformed [becomes and is assimilated] to its object [of worship], Psalm 115:8. Ματαιότης is opposed to τῷ δοξάζειν; ἀσύνετος καρδία to τῷ εὐχαριστεῖν.—δισλογισμοῖς [“imaginations,” Eng. vers.], thoughts) Variable, uncertain, and foolish.

[14] Convenientia.=the Stoic ὁμολογία Cic. de fin. 3. 6. 21—ED.

Verse 21. - Because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful (rather, gave thanks); but became vain in their imaginations (διαλογισμοῖς, elsewhere more correctly rendered "thoughts" or "reasonings;" cf. 1 Corinthians 3:20, "The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain" - μάταιοι, as here, ἐματαιώθησαν), and their foolish heart was darkened. Romans 1:21Knowing - glorified not

"I think it may be proved from facts that any given people, down to the lowest savages, has at any period of its life known far more than it has done: known quite enough to have enabled it to have got on comfortably, thriven and developed, if it had only done what no man does, all that it knew it ought to do and could do" (Charles Kingsley, "The Roman and the Teuton").

Became vain (ἐματαιώθησαν)

Vain things (μάταια) was the Jews' name for idols. Compare Acts 4:15. Their ideas and conceptions of God had no intrinsic value corresponding with the truth. "The understanding was reduced to work in vacuo. It rendered itself in a way futile" (Godet).

Imaginations (διαλογισμοῖς)

Rev., better, reasonings. See on Matthew 15:19; see on Mark 7:21; see on James 2:4.

Foolish (ἀσύνετος)

See on συνετός prudent, Matthew 11:25, and the kindred word σύνεσις understanding, see on Mark 12:33; see on Luke 2:47. They did not combine the facts which were patent to their observation.

Heart (καρδία)

The heart is, first, the physical organ, the center of the circulation of the blood. Hence, the seat and center of physical life. In the former sense it does not occur in the New Testament. As denoting the vigor and sense of physical life, see Acts 14:17; James 5:5; Luke 21:34. It is used fifty-two times by Paul.

Never used like ψυχή, soul, to denote the individual subject of personal life, so that it can be exchanged with the personal pronoun (Acts 2:43; Acts 3:23; Romans 13:1); nor like πνεῦμα spirit, to denote the divinely-given principle of life.

It is the central seat and organ of the personal life (ψυχή) of man regarded in and by himself. Hence it is commonly accompanied with the possessive pronouns, my, his, thy, etc.

Like our heart it denotes the seat of feeling as contrasted with intelligence. 2 Corinthians 2:4; Romans 9:2; Romans 10:1; 2 Corinthians 6:11; Philippians 1:7. But it is not limited to this. It is also the seat of mental action, feeling, thinking, willing. It is used -

1. Of intelligence, Romans 1:21; 2 Corinthians 3:15; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:18.


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