Paul reveals the six stops on the road to idolatry. They are seen in Romans 1:21-23. This section is part of Paul’s larger exposure of the sin of the Gentiles. In other words, in Romans 1:18-32 Paul is revealing the unrighteousness of the Gentile world. In chapter 2 he will reveal the sin and guilt of the Jews. Then, in Romans 3:1-20 he will establish the universal guilt of all humanity and the need for all people to find their justification through Christ alone.
So Romans 1:21-23 is important because it shows the six steps in the downward spiral toward idolatry. He shows how idolatry begins and where it always ends. The passage, then, is intended to explain how and why things are the way they are in the world. It also serves as a warning to those who are justified by faith in Christ’s grace to beware of the subtle workings of idolatry. Remember how Israel, redeemed from bondage by the Lord Jehovah, so soon reverted to idolatry in the wilderness.
Here are the six stops on the road to idolatry which Paul sketches in the opening of this great epistle.
1. They did not honor God as God – v. 21. Even though they knew God, even though they saw His invisible attributes – His eternal power and divine nature through what has been made (1:20), they failed to honor Him for who He is.
2. They ceased giving thanks for His provision as God – v. 21. God created the world with everything supplied for our maintenance in life. We thank Him for food, clothing, shelter. We thank Him for health and strength, for love and supports which we have in life. As soon as we cease being thankful for life’s basic provisions we must know that we are at the second stop on the way to full-blown idolatry.
3. They lost touch with reality – v. 21. This is what Paul means when he says: “they became futile in their speculations.” Reality is like a fence to our thoughts. As soon as we lose touch with the reality of God and the revelation of God in creation, we begin to speculate and this only leads to futility!
4. They became content with darkness – v. 21. This point comes from the words “their foolish heart was darkened.” It certainly follows that futile speculation leads to darkness. Paul had earlier stated that they suppressed the truth of God (1:18-20). This is one of Paul’s major points in 1:18-32 where he is speaking about the preaching of the gospel of God, the revelation of the wrath of God, the suppression of the truth of God, and the consequences of exchanging the truth of God for a lie (which begins at 1:24 when he says “therefore”).
5. They boasted in the face of God – v. 22. “Professing to be wise, they became fools.” The boasting is seen in the word “professing.” They declared themselves wise before God, and in doing, Paul says, demonstrated their folly. Paul deals further with this in 1 Cor. 1:25, and 1 Cor. 2:7-16.
6. They exchanged the glory of God for corruption, for the lie – v. 23, 25. Here is the “arrival” point if you will. This is where idolatry leads – to the great exchange of truth for lies, glory for corruption, the Creator for the created. Man trades the true God, the Creator, in for lies and created things. And the consequence of this (a whole study in itself) is that “God gave them over.”
We undoubtedly know the importance of Romans for Christian doctrine. We would also understand how this exposure of the inner workings of idolatry in human hearts gives us both an explanation of what we see in our own hearts and in the world, and serves as the ultimate warning against all idolatry – Israelite idolatry, the idolatry of false religion, and our own American idolatry – the subtle temptations that we Christians face in our culture today.