Romans 1:18–21 (ESV) — 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Most are very familiar with this passage and refer to it when asked to explain why a person who has never heard the Gospel is “without excuse” before God. In other words, why the default position for humanity is to exist in a state of accountability before a holy and just God.
Certainly Paul’s words address this, but they can also be seen to address at least (2) other things: humanity’s clear perception and knowledge of God; and humanity’s unbelief in spite of this clear perception and knowledge. As the title of this article suggests, it is the relationship between these last two that I want to explore.
What is so interesting is that Paul explicitly puts the “perceiving” of “what can be known about God” in one’s “thinking” and “heart“. In other words, a fallen humanity can perceive God’s “eternal power” and “divine nature” within their hearts and minds from “the things that have been made“. A reason they are “without excuse“. And yet, Paul also reveals that the heart and mind are also a barrier to “clearly perceiving” because they operate in “futile” and “foolish” ways.
So, why does a fallen humanity, who nevertheless can still perceive God’s “eternal power” and “divine nature” in their hearts and minds, also fail “to acknowledge God” in their hearts and minds?
Of course, the answer can be found in the nature of depravity – the hardness of the heart and the noetic effects of sin that Paul speaks of in Romans 1. But is there an answer that fleshes out the way depravity interacts with the unbeliever’s will that explains why they choose to be “futile in their thinking” and act with “foolish hearts“?
Enter J. Budziszewski’s book What We Can’t Not Know. In Part II and Chapter 4, “Explaining the Lost World – The First and Second Witnesses”, he introduces a useful way to view the conscience, the location of moral knowledge. He states that the “older natural law thinkers” differentiated between the “deep conscience” and the “surface conscience“. He laments that these are “two aspects of the moral intellect…that we have forgotten“.
I use conscience as an example because it is here that we interact with the moral knowledge of God; part of His “divine nature“.
Now, deep conscience “is the interior witness to the foundational principles of moral law“. In it resides “the knowledge of basic goods, of formal norms, and of everyday moral rules.” It is not a feeling but an innate knowledge of morality. In fact, it was “designed as a witness to moral truth” by God. Therefore, it “cannot be erased, cannot be mistaken, and is the same in every human being.” And knowledge of moral truth obligates us with duties to self, neighbor and God. In relation to our discussion thus far, it seems possible that the deep conscience is, as Paul says, where all humanity can “clearly perceive” God’s nature from “the things that have been made.”
Surface conscience, on the other hand, is more subjective. Budziszewski says that surface conscience “presents greater possibilities for going wrong. It can be erased, it can be mistaken, and it can vary from person to person.” In relation to our discussion thus far, if deep conscience is where clear perception of God’s nature occurs, it seems possible that it is at the level of the surface conscience that “futile thinking” and “the foolish heart” corrupt the testimony of moral truth that the deep conscience provides. This corruption then warps our desire to fulfill, in the way God ordains, duties to self, neighbor and God and results in a personal, subjective and relative moral framework.
By way of example, Budziszewski cites (9) ways that the surface conscience can go wrong. And because it is here, the surface conscience, that we find a possible answer to our question asked above, I think it is worth quoting Budziszewski at length.
Surface conscience “can blur and err in at least nine different ways: (1) one way is insufficient experience, where I don’t know enough to reach sound conclusions; (2) another is insufficient skill, where I have never learned the art of reasoning well. Then come (3) sloth, where I am too lazy to reason, and (4) corrupt custom, where it has never occurred to me to do so. Next come (5) passion, where I am distracted by strong feeling from reasoning carefully, and (6) fear, where I am afraid to reason because I might find out that I am wrong. Bringing up the rear are (7) wishful thinking, where I include in my reasoning only what I am willing to notice; (8) depraved ideology, where I interpret known principles crookedly; and (9) malice, where I refuse to reason because I am determined to do what I want.”
These provide, it seems to me, a fairly articulate description of how the depravity of humanity finds expression on a day to day basis. And as suggested, provide an answer to the question we asked earlier.
One can easily see, for example, someone who abides within a naturalistic framework invoke #8 and claim that moral knowledge is only a subjective, cultural convention. Or an atheist invoke #9 because they refuse to admit that they have any moral accountability before a holy God. Or someone invoke #1 or #3 simply because in a world where “to each his own” is a guiding principal, who cares about moral knowledge. And finally, the person who lives under the illusion that feelings, and not a divinely informed moral knowledge, are the grounding for morality, would surely invoke #5.
Each is an act of a corrupt and depraved will in rebellion to the deep conscience convictions that Paul argues we all have in our Romans 1 text. But of our own choosing, we follow the desires of our heart and corrupt the revelation of God by one or all of the examples given. And because this corruption is an act of our fallen will, we “are without excuse” before God.
At the end of the day, humanity’s “futile thinking” and “foolishness of heart” with respect to God’s moral knowledge, is, as Paul suggests, a dishonoring of God as God and an exaltation of man as god. Budziszewski puts it this way, “we don’t want the freedom of the creature but the freedom of the Creator – not freedom to be good but freedom to determine the good.“
And so this dynamic between the deep conscience and the surface conscience perhaps explains how the unbeliever can both perceive in their heart and mind and yet also reject in their heart and mind the revelation of God – whether that revelation be of the general variety or the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, I must share a personal and significant implication of this discussion. I always find it helpful to understand the extent of my depravity before my salvation. It seems that my unbelief was a bottomless pit of “futile thinking“. What I mean is that I often embraced one if not all of these surface conscience errors before I trusted in Jesus as Lord and Savior. In fact, these errors articulate virtually every phase of unbelief I went through as I matured intellectually (by that I mean as I was indoctrinated into the liberal secularism of college). The “smarter” I became, the more clever was my corruption of God’s moral knowledge. I left behind the errors #1 to #3 and “progressed” to errors #7 through #9. And in my own power, there was no escape.
And yet, on my behalf and by His grace, God smashed all the errors to oblivion and called me to believe in Him. Amen.