“In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul describes a certain level of human activity as ‘inexcusable’ (Rom. 1:20). Does this imply that some conduct, even that which is bad, is ‘excusable’?”
No, that would be an erroneous conclusion to draw from the terminology of the passage cited above. All sin – any sin – is a transgression of divine law (1 Jn. 3:4), and any sin, left unattended, will result in spiritual death (Jas. 1:15). No sin is “excusable” on its own merit.
The expression “without excuse,” in Romans 1:20, translates the Greek term anapologetos. The word is found only in two New Testament passages (Rom. 1:20; 2:1). The original term is composed of two prime elements, a negative prefix, which signifies “without,” and the main stem, apologeomai, which means “to defend.” The word literally means, therefore, “without defense.”
In Romans 1:20, Paul sets forth the fact that the ancient Gentiles, who refused to have God in their knowledge, had “no excuse,” i.e., they had “no defense,” for their unbelief. And why not? Because adequate evidence is available for drawing the conclusion that the true God does exist. Such documentation is to be found in the very order of the creation He fashioned. As the apostle argues: Evidence for God’s presence is “clearly seen” in the things that are made. A designed Universe demands a designer! The “fingerprints” of deity are “all over” the components of the creation. There is simply no excuse not to believe that an Ultimate Intelligence is responsible for the Universe – if one thinks perceptively.
As indicated above, the second reference in which “without excuse” is used is Romans 2:1. In this text, the Jew is condemned for his hypocritical judging, which involved a censorious attitude, combined with the inconsistency of his own base conduct.
“Wherefore you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judges . . . for . . . you practice the same things.”
Again, what is the basis of inspired rebuke? Well, as the subsequent context reveals, the Hebrew people had a written revelation from God, namely the Mosaic code. In light of this historical fact, the nation of Israel was highly culpable with regard to its inconsistent teaching/practice pattern.
The presumption underlying both of Paul’s arguments (in 1:20 and 2:1), then, is this.
- If God had provided no evidence of His existence (1:20), then man might have a defense for not believing. Since the hypothetical premise underlying the argument is not true, no legitimate defense for unbelief exists.
- Had there been no basis upon which the Jew could have determined right conduct (2:1), he might have argued a “defense” for his moral laxness. But since this supposition did not reflect the reality of the case, he was defenseless.
Paul’s case, therefore, in both instances – as applied to Gentile and Jew – is this. No one has a defense for disobeying God. Adequate evidence is available, and a refusal to serve God is inexcusable.
Finally, I would add this note as well. The fact that a man is ignorant of, or refuses to recognize the validity of, the truth – relative to God’s existence, and humanity’s obligation to obey Him – is no legitimate defense (see 2 Thes. 1:7-9). Men have the obligation to seek the Creator and his truth (Acts 17:27; Jn. 7:17; 8:32). Also, Christians have a duty to help their fellows find the way of life (Mt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16).