Select Wisdom Brand
(Romans 1:21-23) Embracing the Darkness

(Romans 1:21-23) Embracing the Darkness

by Stephen Davey Ref: Romans 1:21–23

In this message Stephen reminds us that there is no true enlightenment apart from the Light of the World. All are lost in darkness. Worse yet . . . all embrace it.


 “Embracing the Darkness”

Romans 1:21-23

In the Book of Proverbs, the Spirit inspired Solomon to include in his wisdom sayings the following phrase: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (9:10)

The wise person is one who fears the Lord – the fool is one, then, who disregards the Lord.

Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrated what it means to fear the Lord.  Let me read from his sermon manuscript his illustration: 

Several years ago I married a young couple.  They had met when they were in Jr. High school and had never looked at anyone else.  After the wedding, they went away on their honeymoon and after a few weeks came home again.  I saw them in church the next Sunday and greeted them with a little pleasantry.  I asked the bride-groom is she had burned the roast for the their first dinner.  They laughed and she said, “Oh, I was afraid that I was going to do that.  I had read so much about brides not being able to cook that I decided that John was going to have the very best meal a bride could prepare for her husband.  So I began about three o’clock; I got everything out and started to work.  When I finally put things on to cook, I was afraid it wouldn’t turn out right.  Then, of course, John had to be late getting home and then I was so afraid things would be spoiled.”  I interrupted her and said, “You have said three times now that you were afraid...did you think he was going to beat you?”  She said, “Of course not,” and looked at him with all the love of her heart in her eyes.  “But,” I persisted, “you said that you were afraid.”  She broke in, “You know what I mean.”  And of course I did.  Her fear was not fright.  Her fear was simply a great desire to please and serve the one to whom she had given herself entirely.  In this case then, [to  borrow from the words of Solomon] the fear of John was the beginning of good cooking.  Perhaps this will enable you to understand how the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and understanding.

Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans Vol. 1, Eerdmans Publishing, 1982, p. 264

It’s true – when you desire to so live for and so serve and  so love and so please the Lord – upon that foundation will true wisdom and understanding for living be built.

To ignore God is the beginning of foolishness. 

Rather than becoming wise, the unbeliever loses the ability to act with discernment and sound judgment.  They do not know right from wrong.  They sin without any regard for consequences.

And they demand to be considered wise.

Paul wrote in Romans 1:21 they proclaim themselves to be wise (that is they grant each other degrees; they affirm each other’s opinions as sophisticated and refined and academic, they slap each other on the back and cheer one another on in their digression intellectually and morally) – “they proclaim themselves to be wise, but in reality they became fools.” 

The word fool means “without insight.”

How did they get that way?

They saw the signs from God.  And they refused the signs – they rebelled against the signs.  As I have illustrated already, they are like the driver of a car on a winding mountainous road who sees a sign that says, “Slow down, dangerous curve ahead.”  I remember being in a van with some missionaries, along with my wife on the coast of France, going up a winding, one lane road that wove back and forth along a mountainside.  The edge of that road was so close to the sheer drop off, that you couldn’t even see the road.  I was up front in the passenger seat and I didn’t even want to look out the window – there was nothing but this precipice outside my window.  I found myself leaning toward the driver the whole way, as if I could somehow help the van keep from tipping over.  Like my wife who presses her foot down, when I’m driving on this imaginary brake pedal, as if she is contributing to my driving . . . the carpet’s worn over there.

Imagine a mountainous lane with a warning sign – and you rebel against it and speed up.  I will show that sign a thing or two.  You would be a fool.

That’s exactly what Paul says humanity has become.  Professing themselves to be wise – in their rebellion, they speed up and become as fools.

Well, do you remember what the two signs are from God – revealing the truth of Himself and His law?  (audience? . . . you are going to have to stay in detention...)

Creation . . .and conscience!

I want you to notice a word that I haven’t brought out yet – in verse 20 – “being understood through what has been made.”  That’s the Greek word, poiema (poihma) from which we get our transliterated word, poem. 

Creation is the poetry of God.   It is His artistic masterpiece which should bring all of humanity to want to find the Artist.

But instead, the poetry of God is disregarded!  They  attribute the masterpiece to chance and evolution.

The second point of review is this; not only is the poetry of  God disregarded, the wrath of God is deserved – verse 20 ends with those unmistakably clear words, “without excuse.”

Instead of seeing the Divine Artist, mankind has sought to explain Him away; they’ve ignored his brush strokes; they’ve suppressed the truth of His masterful design; they have silenced the voice He painted on our hearts that whispers moral truth and final accountability.

Charles Darwin said once that man is developed from an ovule which differs in no respect from the ovules of other animals. When Darwin said that he knew nothing about genes; he knew nothing about chromosomes; he knew nothing about DNA and it’s millions of bits of information.  One author said,  “Darwin’s statement is as foolish as saying that the California redwood tree develops from a tiny seed that differs in no respect from the seed that produces the ragweed.”  The truth is, the difference is staggering.

Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans Vol. 1, Eerdmans, p. 248   

There is a chemist in our church who teaches at a University nearby, which will remain nameless other than to say I hope their football team does better than their basketball team.  She was telling me that the issue today is not so much the origin of life.  That’s sort of passé – simply because with all the discoveries related to DNA and the information embedded within living cells, now, she said, the issue and question within the scientific world is not the origin of life, but the origin of information that produces life.

Where did all that information come from?   

In the beginning was the word – the logos – the word – the reason – the information . . . and the information came from God.

But sinful humanity must find another source, another cause, another something other than a personal, living, holy, righteous God.

God exists, and everybody knows it – so they must deny it.

Missiologist, Leith Samuel write, “Many missionaries point out that the heathen know more than we think.  They know that there is a God.  There are no atheists among heathen tribesman.  There has never been discovered upon earth a tribe of people, however small or depraved, which has not believed in some kind of god or had some system of worship...they even know they have sinned.  When a Christian comes to them and talks about sin he often finds ready acknowledgment that this is true.  They are already aware that they have done wrong things and that wrong things must be punished.  They are already afraid of punishment, and afraid of death. They know that sin must be atoned for, and they seek ways of appeasing their deities or deity.”

                                                                                    John Phillips, Exploring Romans, Moody Press, 1969, p. 24

David Livingston, the famous missionary to Africa reported nearly 200 years ago that he found primitive tribes, completely out of touch with each other and with basic civilization; possessing no knowledge of Scripture or civilized morality, who were still conscious of being sinners.

Roy Laurin, Romans, Kregel Publications, 1988, p. 36

After Charles Darwin took that famous trip in the “Beagle”, he returned to England saying that he had indeed found a tribe of savages on the island of Tierra del Fuego who had no religion whatsoever.  No concept of morality or God.  He used that tribe to prove his thesis that man is just another animal.  But the believers in England immediately formed a mission society to go and reach those people on that island.  They sent missionaries who, after learning the language and customs discovered that this people had religious ideas, concepts and practices that had all somehow missed the eyes of Darwin.

Barnhouse, p. 247

Mankind is incurably religious – he will at least worship himself.  But he is also rebellious.

Now in verse 21, Paul continues to prove the guilt of humanity and the coming fury and judgment of God as he writes, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks.”

In other words, there is a universal knowledge of the reality of God

But you need to understand that there are at least three levels of knowledge:

The first is actual awareness – this is true knowledge, but not extensive knowledge.  It doesn’t affect us or involve us personally.  You are aware that the earth is round instead of flat, but you really don’t care.  You are aware that E=mc2 – but just knowing that fact doesn’t really impact the way you live your life.

A second level of knowledge goes beyond vague awareness to detailed description.

This is the theologian who studies and knows a lot about God and a lot about church history and a lot about Biblical languages but still, is on his way to an everlasting hell because it is to him mere facts, and not personal faith.

The third and highest level of knowledge is personal possession.

This is truth that is indeed truth.  And you believe and live by it.   

So, in verse 21 Paul is not saying that everyone has a personal knowledge of God, or even a detailed description of God.  He is saying, in effect saying, “even though they knew “about” God – that is, “even though they had a vague awareness of God’s existence, they did not honor Him.

As I’ve said before, mankind will be judged, not by the light they were not given about God, but by the light they were given about God and refused to honor.

Paul says here, “Even though they were aware of God, they refused to honor Him.”  Literally, “they refused to glorify Him.”

The first response of unregenerate man toward their Creator is a refusal to give God glory.

Glory or honor in this verse is from the Greek root doxa (doxa).  It gives us our word orthodox.  Originally, the verb meant to have an opinion.

Orthodox meant simply, “a correct opinion or straight opinion.”   A paradox was “a contrary opinion.”

Who can give God glory?  Only the person who has a right opinion of God!  The one who knows Him properly and appreciates his attributes and character – the one who has the correct opinion that God is holy and just and righteous and gracious and merciful – the one who praises God for who God is, is in the process of giving God doxa – honor or glory.

The Greek word doxa also gives us the word doxology – praise to God for who He is.  We’ve put that word into music whereby we also praise God for who He is:

            Praise God from whom blessings flow;

            Praise Him all creatures here below;

            Praise Him above ye heavenly host;

            Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Amen

The unbelieving man or woman refuses to give God glory, for who He is – almighty, Creator, sustaining God; they refuse, as it were, to sing the doxology!

But the question remains; just How do we give glory to God?  Besides singing in church or in private.  How do we worship God and ascribe to Him glory every single day?

  1. By acknowledging Christ as your Lord

Phil. 2:11 - every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

  1. By admitting your sin

Joshua 7:19  Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, I implore you, give glory to the Lord, the God

of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me.” 

So Achan answered Joshua and said, “Truly, I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel,

and this is what I did.

  1. By trusting Him with your life

Romans 4:20  Speaking about Abraham’s trust in following the will of God for his life, Paul writes, 

“with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving

glory to God,  and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

  1. By praising Him with your voice

Ps. 149:1 Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, And His praise in the congregation of

the godly ones.  5. Let the godly ones exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds. 6.  Let the

high praises of God be in their mouth.”

  1. By praying for His will to be done

John 14:13  “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in

the Son.”

  1. By serving the church family

I Peter 4:10,11  As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good

stewards of the manifold grace of God.  Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the

utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God

supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the

glory and dominion forever and ever.

You thought that when parked cars or changed diapers or greeting visitors or setting up chairs or directing children’s games that you were simply helping fill a need?  You were bringing honor and glory to God!  You are expressing your right opinion of God’s worth!  He is worth it to you!

  1. By preaching and teaching the word of God

2 Thessalonians 3:1 Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly

and be glorified, just as it did also with you.

I think also of the early church in Acts 2 which saw the rapid spread of the word of God preached and taught so that the church was “praising God”.

  1. By living a morally pure life

1 Corinthians 6:18.  Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but

the immoral man sins against his own body.  19.  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of

the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?  20.  For

you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

  1. By introducing unbelievers to Christ

2 Corinthians 4:15 For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.

  1. By bearing spiritual fruit

John 15:8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.

Fruit is a reference to that which is godly attitudes and actions.

Ten points adapted from John MacArthur Jr., The Wrath of God, Moody Press, 1986, p. 66

Let me give you a couple more:

  1. By thanking God for the ministry of other believers.

It’s one thing to thank Him for what you do – it’s another thing to get excited about what God is doing through someone else.  And when you do, you bring God glory and honor.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:13 [The saints] will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ.

  1. By dying as a faithful disciple.

Many people want to die a faithful disciple without having lived a faithful life.

There are a lot of people who want to die a godly death without having to live a godly life.

Jesus was talking to the Peter in John 21:19 about the fact that he would die a martyr’s death.  But in the course of that conversation Christ talks to all of us about the fact that even in our death we can bring glory to God.   “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.”

Peter’s faithful life would result in a God-glorifying death.  Isn’t that incredible – even in the last breath you draw, you can bring God glory.

These are the things an unbeliever cannot and will not do:

acknowledge Christ as Lord

admit their sin

trust Him with their lives

praise Him with their voice

pray for His will to be done

serving the church

respect the word of God

live a morally pure life

            and so on...

They will not give God glory!

Secondly, mankind refuses to give God, not only glory but gratitude.

Paul writes, For even though they knew about God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks.

Os Guinness, referring to Romans 1:21 wrote, “rebellion against God does not begin with the clenched fist of atheism but with the self-satisfied heart of the one [who cannot say] ‘thank you.’

                                                                                           Quoted in James Montgomery Boice, Romans Vol. 1, Baker Book House, 1991, p. 164

Has it ever occurred to you that one of the key characteristics that distinguishes a believer from a non- believer is the believer’s ability to say, “Thank you” to God – and mean it!”

So, just how distinctive is your life, Christian?  Are you really that different than the world? 

Or do you register before God your complaints, like some ornery hotel patron who doesn’t like the towels and doesn’t like the food and doesn’t like the mattress and doesn’t like the service . . . where’s the hotel manager!

That’s the world’s attitude of everything. 

It is only the believer who says to God, “Thank you, Lord?!

Paul goes on to say in the last part of verse 21 that because man will not give God glory or gratitude, they spiral downward. 

They become involved in worthless self-inventions or empty speculations. 

Paul writes, (21b.)  But they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened.

Whether it is the burning of incense to departed loved ones; or the scented beads of wood that are passed through oriental fingers as they recite their prayers; or the Osiris myth from the near east of the Goddess mother giving birth to life – mankind is incurably religious.

And constantly speculating – just read the newspaper this past weekend and learn about college students taking their spring break and going to a Buddhist monastery near Wilmington – and studying the wheel of life and death; you can read about a major conference for Mormons in this county; you can order a CD on Hinduism compiled by, among others, a Hindu priest who also happens to be a radiologist.  And you can read up on the debate among Methodists over their new hymnal that includes new hymns about God as Divine Mother.

Those who refuse to glorify God the Creator and His Son the Redeemer are left alone to wander through the maze and hope they find a way out.

Roy Laurin writes, “What man lost in fellowship with a personal God and what he has tried to retrieve by centuries of fetishism, idolatry and polytheism is found in fellowship with Jesus Christ.  What was lost through disobedience to God’s spoken Word is restored by obedience to God’s written Word.  What man has tried to regain by religious achievement is gained by faith alone for the just shall live by faith.”

Roy Laurin, Romans; Where Life Begins, Kregel Publications, 1988, p. 44

Secondly, unbelieving mankind becomes trapped in the darkness of their self-deception

(v. 22)  Proclaiming themselves to be wise, they became fools.  Their digression continues as they, Paul writes, in verse 23, “they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

You don’t give God glory, you end up giving a man or woman worship.  You digress to giving birds and then cows and finally worms and beetles glory.

But the unbeliever prefers to worship their self made gods.  They has chosen to embrace the darkness!

They congratulate one another on their brilliance – but God says something different about them than they say about each other  - “proclaiming themselves to be wise, they became, the Greek word is morons.

Not exactly something to write home about.

When John the Baptist stepped out onto the darkened stage of world history, he introduced the Messiah by saying, “He is the true Light, which brings light to every man.”

In other words, God sent His Son to earth to turn on the light in a very dark world.

John 1:4 says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. . .But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right become children of God.” – to leave the company of the damned and join the company of the redeemed.

All others will one day face the fury of God who will mete out holy justice to all for having been displaced by worms and beetles and incense and beads and the sun and the trees and birds and cows and fire and stars and demons and man himself.

One day, the new creation will sing – every created thing that is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things that are in them, saying – To Him who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Dear Christian friend, your life on earth should be spent rehearsing for that day – when worshipping the Lamb will be done face to face.   When we join together as one great choir and sing the doxology to the glory and honor of God.

Add a Comment


Audrey says:
It's 350am and I'm very profoundly thankful the Lord brought me to this teaching. I listen without fail to your ministry on the BBN . Thank you veryvery much for all you do for me as a born again Christian who grows from your teaching the truth in an understandable way, clearly spoken with a passionate voice for Jesus.

We hope this resource blessed you. Our ministry is EMPOWERED by your prayer and ENABLED by your financial support.
CLICK HERE to make a difference.