What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
The apostle Paul has been writing about the wrath of God that’s hovering over godless and wicked people like a huge black rain cloud. Beware, violent men! Beware, thieves and liars! Beware, adulterers! Beware, idolaters! Beware blasphemers! Beware you who dishonour your father and your mother! You are living in a moral universe that a personal God created. You live and move and have your being in God. We must all appear before the judgment seat of God. Soon you will face a deluge, and neither you nor a single unrepentant person is going to avoid the hovering wrath of God falling upon them. That is the stark statement of the previous verse to our text, that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, but then, before that verse comes to an end, the apostle explains why their encounter with divine retribution is inevitable. It is not that God delights in anger, but that you are being stubborn! You are refusing to get off the broad road you’re on, even though it’s leading to destruction. Why so? The verse before our text (v.18) again tells men why, what you are doing is stifling the truth that you know about God in an attitude of wicked defiance. You are hindering that truth that could lead you to know and love and serve the living God. You are imprisoning the truth. You have put the truth in a deep dark dungeon in the depths of your life, and you have locked the door and thrown away the key. That is what you’ve done with the truth. You’ve never paid a visit to the truth for many years. You know where the truth is; it is in the Lord Jesus. You know who is true: it is the Christ who said, “I am the truth”, who also taught us that God’s word is truth. Yet you’re deliberately preventing it from having any influence in your life. You refuse to attend a gospel church; you will not listen to a man called by God to preach his word. You won’t pray to God alone and seriously. You will not study the Bible. You don’t ask God to show himself to you, and to show you who you really are. You stifle the truth that could influence your life for good. That is what the word of God says, that that is the posture of every single unregenerate person. You are not being ‘open-minded’ about religion. Don’t kid yourself. That’s a delusion. Your powers of thought and judgment have an anti-God bias. Then the apostle develops this theme further in our text.
1. GOD HAS MADE THE TRUTH ABOUT HIMSELF KNOWN TO MANKIND.
How has God made himself plain? By the fact that he is the one who has created the world and all of us men and women. It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves – like a potter, or an artist, or a poet creates, except God created the cosmos out of nothing. In verse 20, when it says that God is “understood from what has been made,” the words “what has been made” stand for one Greek word (which you’ll all recognize), the word poiema. It’s the word from which we get ‘poem.’ The universe and everything in it is God’s work of art. What’s the point of this word? The point is that in a poem such as a sonnet there is manifest design and intention and craft and rhythms. The wind might blow and seem to form one letter in the sand or one in the clouds, but it could not create a poem. That’s the point. God acted. God planned. God designed the whole thing. God crafted. He created and made the heavens and the earth and that in them is, and in doing that, Paul says in verse 19, Almighty God made himself plain to all mankind. The universe is a poem about God. You understand God from the cosmic poem he has written.
We see slogans painted at the road side around our town, one urging us to remember Tryweryn, an ancient community near Bala unnecessarily destroyed fifty years ago by the building of a reservoir – whose waters have never been used – which drowned the chapel and school and homes of that village. But who was the person that wrote on a wall on the road that leads south out of our town that exhortation to remember that injustice? That has not been revealed; the painter left no signature, and the only clue we have from the painting itself is that the painter was certainly a Welshman. Then on the road east across Plunlumon the name ‘Elvis’ is painted on a crag, but again the person who painted just that word is not revealed to us from the way the word has been painted. We gather this, that he must have been a lover of the music of Elvis Presley. That’s all we know. But it is something. When a student writes “Jesus saves” on a wall then we know that the slogan writer was a fundamentalist Christian, and we know who Jesus is and how he saves. Banksy is the pseudonym of a famous painter of graffiti who guards his anonymity carefully, but you can tell a little more about his thinking and his values from the many different scenes he has created. I am talking of this revelation in creation of God and using these examples. We look at what has been painted on rocks and walls and we have hints of the convictions of their creators. When we look at God’s handiwork we discover a far more substantial view of him. He is invisible – “God is a spirit” – and infinite, but when he, all by himself, has created something then the character and personality of God are stamped there on the things he’s made. You discover some great things of what he is from what he has made. So there develops a certain visibility of the invisible God. There is a certain knowledge of the unknown God. All this is evident from what the Creator of the universe has made.
We call this the ‘General Revelation’ of God. We use this phrase for a number of reasons. It is ‘general’ in that it is revealed to everybody without exception, in the northern and in the southern hemispheres, in the east on the road to Mandalay “where the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay” and also in the west in that ‘windy city’ of Chicago. Every single person in the history of the world is given this revelation of who is their Creator. It is general in this sense that it is also natural, it is seen in ‘nature’ not there in the people or words or events of the Bible, not there in Jesus Christ. You do not need the Bible to know truth about God. It is a ‘general’ revelation in the sense that it is continuous and steady; every single person in the history of the world constantly has this revelation of the Creator. What they see above them and within them and alongside them is declaring to them all that there is a Creator God who has made everything, and without him was not anything made that was made.
Let me use this illustration; there are less and less truly primitive people in the world today, even in Asia in distant valleys in the Himalayas in Tibet, or in mountain recesses of Papua New Guinea, or in remote parts of the Brazilian rain forest. But let us imagine a people who have never met or even seen an American or a Western European until one day a plane crashes in their area. These hunters and collectors first come across a suitcase burst open on impact and they find soft clothes, books, photograph albums, a travel clock, leather shoes and so on. Those artifacts reveal to them a level of sophistication and creative power utterly new to them and they are spellbound. They are increasingly overwhelmed as they follow a trail of debris and finally come to the crashed plane and the people on board. They realise about themselves how limited is their knowledge and their skills, how primitive they are, while how educated and brilliant are these other men and women in the plane wreck to have designed and built such incredible objects. What unimaginable wealth, and scientific knowledge, and power they possess to have made all this. They learn all that from what has been revealed to them in the discoveries they’ve made. They can see that none of the salvaged materials they hold could have come about spontaneously or come about by chance, but by design and by powerful acts of creation.
So you can see what I am saying from that primitive and unoriginal illustration, that from the creation around us and within us, all the truth that’s designed and created by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in creation, has been speaking to every man and woman from the fall of Adam saying, ‘The Creator is mighty; he is glorious; he is magnificently wise; he is beautiful.’ It has been showing to them so many of the invisible attributes of our Creator, the living God, so that they can grasp what he’s like, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (v.19). What is Paul specifically talking about? What actually has God made plain to us about himself?
i] Consider mankind! What people see in every man and woman reveals to them God. I am thinking of that intriguing verse in the prologue to John’s gospel speaking of the Son of God; “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9). What we have heard and seen in the past week at the death of Nelson Mandela – all those things that were true and good about him – they reflect the God in Christ who made him. God designed and formed every man and woman, our bodies, even our posture, how we stand and walk. Then our brains, how we think and then talk; that also speaks of God’s brilliance in creating man. John Stott says that a Christian consultant surgeon wrote to him about the wonders of creation and then said, “I am filled with the same awe and humility when I contemplate something of what goes on in a single cell as when I contemplate the sky on a clear night. The coordination of the complex activities of the cell in a common purpose hits the scientific part of me as the best evidence for an Ultimate Purpose.” You understand? That single tiny cell is irreducibly complex, and therefore the product of intelligent design, not chance. Irreducible complexity means that the immensely complex cell has a large number of parts that all have to work together in such a way that the absence of one part would stop the entire function – which means that the functioning system of the cell couldn’t have been built up by small evolutionary steps in which the parts accumulated gradually. That Christian doctor wrote, “I look at one cell of the billions that make up a human body and I am filled with awe and humility.”
Again, you have a conscience and that is the voice of God in you. It echoes the righteousness and integrity of God. Listen to it. Educate it. Don’t let it be perverted by the culture you live in – think of the conscience of the cannibal, or the conscience of the Nazi, or the racist. Educate it by the word of God in the Bible. You know this about God from your conscience that he is a God of wrath.
Again, I’m thinking about man’s creativity revealing God to us. We create because we are made in the image of the great Creator. You think of such areas as art, music, literature, and scientific and technological inventiveness. But I don’t want to be an aesthete and name drop ‘Beethoven’ and ‘Shakespeare.’ I am thinking of the inventiveness shown by everyone’s favourite electrician whom we ask to come to us when something has gone wrong in the house, or by the one builder whose services we all try to obtain, who can ‘fix’ most things that have broken down. The lessons that come to us from those men is that God is inventive and creative, and so we’re not surprised when men are absolutely stupendous in their creative and artistic and scientific skills, building bridges and jumbo jets and the world wide web.
I know that there is something beautiful in birdsong, in the lark ascending and in the song of the nightingale, but would you go to a concert hall for two hours and pay 50 pounds to hear a skylark sing? But you’d go to hear a concert of music by Bach or Handel or Mahler for three hours. Our own creativity reflects the majesty of our great Creator.
Or there’s the range of human emotions: what a difference in degree and in the complexity of emotion within every person – compared to the animals. We display heart-ache, grief, longing, the heights of joy unspeakable, yearning, the fear of punishment when a wrong has been done, homesickness, outrage, indignation and so on. That also shows us the nature of God; the fruit of the Spirit is one grace after another, all of them quite different; love, joy peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. It is ultimately God who is plainly being revealed in the heroism and self-denial and self-sacrifice of men and women – even when these brave people deny his existence. Animals don’t behave like that. And there are our distinct human personalities: soon there will be eight billion people living in this world and each has a character that is unique and different from every other one. We look at them and we conclude, what a vast range of emotions is found in the riches of God!
Or there is human thinking: we have the capacity to reason and think logically and plan ahead of what will be the consequences of setting out on a certain enterprise. We are totally set apart from the animal world. We are able to consider, and look at an issue from many angles, and develop skills and complexity in technology, in agriculture, in conquering space, and ocean depths, and every field of endeavour. That is how God is. He determines to make the universe and ourselves in his image and likeness. He has a plan for the world and he gives us a purpose to live for – to glorify and enjoy him for ever.
God designed us with this highly developed brain so that we are capable of abstract reasoning, self-awareness, language, rationality, introspection, and problem solving. This mental capability is combined with an erect body that frees the hands for manipulating objects. It has allowed humans to make far greater use of tools than any other living species on earth. We reflect our Creator who made man from the dust of the earth.
Or consider man making moral judgments, with an inner sense of right and wrong that sets us apart from animals who have little if any innate sense of cowardice or justice. They simply react from a need for survival, and fear of punishment and hope of reward. But we give thought to each case brought before us. How challenging are human dilemmas; the person with a learning disability, someone with dementia, the unborn child, the person in a long coma and so on. We weigh up this case and that case, and discuss it with the greatest care, because each human life will last as long as God. Ours is not merely a physical body but people with souls and spirits. We are made to know God and love God. We are appalled at Nazi-ism and how they treated people. That sense of horror actually reflects the living God who made us!
Or there is our ability to control our instincts. Men and women have instincts just like animals. Animals, however, are compelled to follow their desires. You set food or drink or a mate before it and the animal follows its instincts, but we are different. We know the power of moral obligations and self control and occasionally they require us to go against our instincts, for example, staying in a dangerous situation to save the life of another. They compel us to fight our instincts that yell at us to save ourselves and get out. The New York firemen at 911 laid down their lives to save others. They did this because they reflect the Lord who says, “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I am saying that God is in every human being. “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9
Or think again of the intimacy and glory of social skills: the depth of interpersonal harmony experienced in human marriage, in family life, in the care of the vulnerable, the baby and the elderly. God said, “Let us make man in our image and likeness. Male and female created he them.” We see God’s character in the nuclear family, and in networking and complex social structures – a school, a regiment, a team, its supporters, a business, a congregation. There are the nations with their own unique histories. It speaks to us of the community in oneness, and that reflects the God who made us for others. The Father loves the Son and is loved in return and they love the Spirit and are loved by him. There is togetherness in God and so it is also in us. It is not good for man to be alone, and so you see the outworking of this in social interactions between men and women, and that forms the basis of human society. You see the longing to belong even in the rise of Facebook and Twitter; the despair of loneliness. We speak in complex, abstract language, far apart from the animals, and this tells us of the God who spoke the world into existence, “Let there be light, and there was light.” I am saying that God has made himself plain to us in mankind, in the way that he created each one of us.
You understand that this knowledge of God’s power and divine nature is not a sensuous knowledge. I mean by that that it can’t be captured by a Dictaphone, being recorded or being photographed. It is not something that comes from the senses of smell or taste or touch or sight or hearing. No. General revelation is something that makes itself known to our understanding, and so to our conscience, and then manifests itself in various feelings of humbling and rejoicing and awe and repentance. Now that awareness is what the natural man hinders and resists. The unregenerate all see what we see, but they say that it is merely ‘nature’ but ‘nature’ is a philosophical concept. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘nature.’
It is of course in Jesus Christ, the perfect man, the archetypal man, God’s great definition of a man, that we see God. He himself said to his disciples that if we have seen him than we have seen God the Father. In Jesus we find a man with all that is mean and cruel and selfish totally absent, and every grace of a man made in God’s image perfectly matured. Jesus is the great proof of the existence of God. I believe in God because of Jesus. I believe in the God who is Jesus. I believe in Jesus who is God. Every kind and gracious and wise person you have known, who has had some influence over you, whom you respect and admire, is pointing you to God. So God is revealed in us his creatures.
ii] What people see in the physical universe around them is a revelation to them of God the Creator. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Ps. 19:1-4). The sky above us, and the sunsets over the Irish Sea and Cardigan Bay in particular are speaking to the men and women of Cardiganshire declaring to them the glory of God, preaching to all the people of Aberystwyth that the heavens and the earth are the work of God’s hands. They are doubly significant.
A) The heavens are seen every day. So they are very important, the clouds of rain, the mighty storms, the moon waxing and waning, the bright summer sun, the lightning, the rainbows, they all continually declare the glory of their Creator. It never switches off; there is never a glory-cut. The second verse of Psalm 19 begins, “Day after day they pour forth speech;” The sun is radiant; it shines so brightly that no one can stare at it for long. Day after day the radiant sun is manifesting the glory of God, and then the verse ends, “night after night they display knowledge.” The stars are radiating too. Men have estimated the number of the stars. They are 1 and then 23 noughts following it, as many stars as the grains of sand on the seashores. Why did God create so vast a universe with so many stars radiating their light? Because it takes that number of stars to reflect the radiant glory of their Creator. Then there is the moon shining night after night. The moon doesn’t radiate its own light – just as Moses’ face didn’t radiate light from within Moses but rather the moon reflects the light that comes from the sun. So that is the analogy for the whole creation. The moon and the planets don’t radiate their own light but the light of something else, and so the whole creation radiates the glory of its Creator, a glory that comes from outside the creation, from the Creator itself. So the heavens are seen every day. There is an inescapable testimony every minute of God’s glory in creation. Then there is the second truth from psalm 19 . . .
B) The heavens are seen everywhere. The psalmist goes on to say, “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv.3&4). I was in Korea and that is the ends of the world from Wales, and the people there saw God’s glory in the heavens and magnified him as Creator in the Korean language. In Brazil they did the same in Portuguese. In Switzerland I heard doxology in French or German. And so on; there is no language where the voice of the sun and moon and stars is not heard speaking to the people and telling them that God is a mighty Creator, even in the remotest corners of the earth. I know of a missionary who has spent decades working in a Sahara oasis telling people there of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. There is a heavenly display of God’s glory in that place night after night, far from any street lighting. From every part of the sky the stars shine brightly, and that sight says that God is glorious. I was in Mesa, Arizona, in 1995 at the unannounced arrival in the skies of the Hale-Bop comet. We couldn’t have been in a better place in all the world for a sight of its glory. I was given a telescope to see its magnificence against a background of the rest of the stars. My niece’s husband, Keith, can take off at night in his F-14 and fly up to 40,000 feet and switch off the lights inside the plane and see the canopy of stars around him. He is looking at the radiant splendour of the glory of God. Everywhere in all the earth the glory of God is displayed to every person so that all are without excuse for disbelieving. All are designed to make you cry out to god, “Make yourself known to me,” and physically go out to find Christians and a Bible.
We talk to our neighbours and friends and members of our family and some of them say to us that there is no God, but you can be sure that in fact they know better than that. They are suppressing the truth, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” When you talk to them you know this about them: God has told them, “I am here.” He is not silent. No person on earth has a legitimate excuse for not worshipping the true and living God. We’re all getting a revelation of his invisible qualities. His glory is evident to everyone, everywhere, every day. I have told you of Francis Schaeffer walking with an argumentative agnostic student along Regent Street and the boy was dead opposed to the gospel of Christ. Then they entered Regent Park and soon all the noise of the city traffic died away and there were the sounds of birdsong and the wind in the trees and the sight of the lake and the bushes and acres of green grass and the flowers. Steadily the edge went out of his arguments, and he began to ask questions as that general revelation of God to him in his conscience and from the creation really got through to him. The opponent became the inquirer.
I had a fellow student at Westminster Seminary and he told me how he come to know the Lord. He had a job out west in the great forests in the Rockies. He would walk in for a day or two and ascend a high tower and with a little radio and binoculars he would look out for forest fires. There the animals were so tame as they had never met hunters. He would drink and wash from the brook they drank from, and this presence day and night of God’s voice in creation gave him an overwhelming sense of God. He said to me, “Just like Van Til talks about with his phrase, the sensus deitatus. His mother had given him a Bible and he had taken it with him, “Just in case I was struck by lightening, and they would find the Bible and say I was a Christian.” So he began to read it, starting at Genesis 1:1 and by the time he reached Leviticus and read all the sacrifices, chapter after chapter he was still baffled. Then one day he turned on his little radio and he picked up a country preacher whose first words were, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And it all clicked into place and made sense. The God of creation had sent his son to deal with his rebel guilt.
So, what have we said?
i] The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible is the Creator. He has designed and created the world and every person in it in such a way that the truth of his eternal power and divine nature are evident to all. So the implications of this for us and the Christian students at the university are that not only we as believers but also everyone we meet in the town and the college are the creation of God and designed by God for a purpose, namely, to communicate something of God. Not only is every Christian God’s poem but so are they. God has worked everywhere in Aberystwyth and Cardigan Bay, the ocean, the mountains and the starlings, as the Creator of all things and the communicator of himself. He has gone before us into every witness situation.
ii] All people know God. All the men and women and students in this university town know God. “They knew God” (v.21). There is a profound common ground between you and everyone you will ever meet in the town and the villages all around us. Yes, the truth is being suppressed, but it is there, buried in the cavernous dungeons of our souls and distorted. God has not left himself without a witness – to every mind and heart. You will not be talking to trees. You will be talking to people who look at trees and see the glory of God, people who know God – his eternal power and deity.
iii] They hinder and stifle this knowledge. Men and women suppress this knowledge and will not humbly bow before God and glorify him or give him thanks for life and intelligence and a conscience and a beautiful universe (v. 21). This means at least that since you Christians have been conquered by grace and love the glory of God and want him to receive the worship due to his name, that you will be steadfast, immovable and always be abounding in the work of the Lord, working with all your strength in the power of God’s Spirit to open their hearts to the truth and spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.
iv] Everyone is without excuse before God. No one in Aberystwyth, however tough their lives have been, whatever personal disasters they have known, has justification for saying, “There is no God.” Nobody here can bring any legitimate protest against God’s revelation and say that it was inadequate, because the people who have lived in this community for many centuries have had far more of God than his general revelation in man and in creation. We know that the people of this community have an earlier grace, the Bible in their language for half a millennium, a Christian presence today, an active evangelizing force telling them of God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ, a Christian Book Shop, and meetings where they can learn far more of the Son of God who’s come to this world and lived and died among us. This means that the great Welsh tragedy is not drugs or illicit sex or murder or theft or poverty or homelessness or abuse or the loss of the language. The great Welsh tragedy is that people are clamping down on all this truth in creation, and in what we are as unique creatures, and even resisting the message of God so loving the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. But they are perishing, under the wrath of God with no hope, even while God is inviting them to come and put their trust in his Son. They are without excuse in their atheism..
v] The remedy and the path of escape is ours. Namely, that the gospel is the power of God for salvation from wrath to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, to the Welsh and to the English, to town and gown, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. To receive the free gift of righteousness is the escape from God’s wrath. We have in our hearts and in our mouths the most powerful urban strategy in the world: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So in the words of our text Paul is not merely asserting that men have a sunset touch and a glimpse of God once in a while. No. God is revealed and clearly seen night and day everywhere. He affirms it in verse 20: “has been clearly seen, being understood.” It’s not even that God just writes his truth in the heavens, it homes in on our minds and on the whole population of the world. It’s received by men. Men get it yet men still suppress it.
Paul takes the language of the law. He borrows from the law courts of his day. He uses a term that is translated in our text “without excuse” (v.20). That is a technical Greco-Roman legal term. If you had been accused of a crime, and you were called to stand in the dock before the judge and jury, then you had the opportunity to give an apologia. You were required to defend yourself. If you had nothing to say then you were said to be unapologia, without a defence. Paul says that because of all that God has shown us of himself, we stand before God unapologia, and every mouth is closed.
You know that many people think they’ll argue with God on the last day. They’re going to give him a good what for, or they are going to say, “What was all that about?” The apostle Paul says every mouth will be shut on that day because there is no defense against the disdain of God. They’ve known the truth and they’ve suppressed it. They were created in the image of God, yet they have chosen to be un-godly. They had the things of the law of God written on their hearts, yet they were un-righteous. They were in rebellion against God, and everybody in the world falls into that camp unless they’re in Christ Jesus.
And the apostle Paul tells us why the good news is so good. We’ve been hindering the truth, persuading us to repent and humble ourselves and worship God and so we deserved condemnation. But God in his goodness, in his love, in his grace, in his mercy has sent his Son to fulfil all righteousness, and sent his Spirit to enable us to turn and trust in Christ, and sent Christians to bear witness to the truth. That’s why the good news is so good. If you deny the bad news that you have been deliberately stifling the truth, then the good news of God changing your heart and opening your eyes and pardoning you for your sin ceases to be good. It is a religious platitude. But the good news is wonderfully true, because the bad news is fearfully true. You know the bad news is the one thing that you can prove empirically in this life. And so there’s one thing left for us to do. Come, for the feast is spread! Come to the truth! Abandon error!
15th December 2013 GEOFF THOMAS