by Jacob Hudgins
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him”(Rom 1:21).
Why don’t we do the things that we know we should? Why is there a gap between information and obedience? In this section, Paul addresses the Gentiles’ descent into sin and the Jews’ typical condescending response to them. He highlights the fact that disobedience is not limited to one race or religious tradition. We all struggle with the gap. In addition, Jews and Gentiles—though they have different types of knowledge—both know better than they live. Why is there a gap?
I want to do my own thing. Paul starts with the Gentiles, who have an understanding about God gleaned from observation of the natural world. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them”(Rom 1:19). They have knowledge about God’s “eternal power and divine nature”(Rom 1:20). Yet they ignore this, refusing to honor or give thanks to God (Rom 1:21). Why? They want something else. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”(Rom 1:22-23). They make their own gods. They follow their own lusts (Rom 1:24, 26). They descend into full-scale depravity: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them”(Rom 1:32). It is not a knowledge problem—they “know God’s righteous decree”—but a desire problem. They want to do their own thing.
Kids sometimes disobey their parents—not because they misunderstand the rules, but because they don’t like them. Citizens sometimes break the laws of their nation—not because they forget them, but because observing them is inconvenient. This passage shows us that when we want to do our own thing, there is no stopping point. We will go full-tilt down the rabbit hole, immersing ourselves in depravity. Obedience does not automatically follow from knowledge; we must want to follow God’s will. When I experience the gap between knowledge and obedience in my own life, I must examine motives.
It doesn’t apply to me. Paul then turns attention to the Jews. “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?”(Rom 2:1-3). As Jesus has warned us (Matt 7:1-5), we tend to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves. Paul reminds them that “we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things”. It is not a knowledge problem. More, the Jews see themselves as the experts of knowledge (Rom 2:17-20) who “know his will and approve what is excellent”(Rom 2:18). It is not a knowledge problem, but an application problem. They think it doesn’t apply to them.
We can store up Bible knowledge, mastering the facts about books, authors, dates, and history. We can stack up doctrinal arguments to correct those with whom we disagree. But if we think all these facts and teachings are for others—that God is automatically fine with our attitudes, thinking, relationships, and behavior—then we will end up knowing and not doing. We are not better than others—or even fundamentally different from them. Bible study that ends without asking the questions “How am I guilty?” and “How does this apply to me?” is incomplete. When I see the gap, I must apply to myself.
Surely there are more reasons why we don’t always do what we should, but there is plenty of work here. May God bless us to remove the gap between knowing and doing!