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Exchanging Truth for a Lie

Image, Idolatry, and the People of God

The Apostle Paul reserves some of his harshest, most theologically poignant words about sin for Romans 1:18-32. In 1:18 he states, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” Paul pulls no punches here. If we read Romans 1:18-32 in isolation, we arrive at a distorted view of God, sin, and his wrath. But if we read it against the storyline of the Bible, then Romans 1 resonates well with all of Scripture. The aim of this essay is to explore the nature of idolatry and God’s subsequent wrath in Romans 1:18-32, tying it to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden and the fall of Israel at Sinai. What we will find should not come as a surprise–history repeats itself.[1]

Image and Idolatry in Genesis 1-3

To grasp the nature of idolatry in Romans 1 and God’s subsequent wrath, we must begin with the beginning of the story—the creation of Adam and Eve in the garden. Genesis 1-3, though only three chapters, forms the core of the Bible’s storyline. It’s here where we learn about God’s intimate relationship with creation and his ultimate intention for it.  We also learn about the great “cosmic tragedy,”[2] yet God’s commitment to preserving his people through a coming redeemer.

Genesis 1-2 narrates how God created Adam and Eve in his “image.” When God creates Adam and Eve in his image, they are to become his official representatives on earth. According to 1:26, God intends to create “man” in his “image” so that “they will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” One verse later, God fulfills his intention, and “man” is “created” in God’s “own image” (1:27).[3] Extensive research in the last several decades on ancient creation accounts and a continued interest in ancient Near Eastern archaeology have sharpened our understanding of “image” here in Genesis.

Just as God rules over the entire cosmos, so mankind, created in the “image” of God, was to rule over the earth and its inhabitants. Fundamentally, being created in God’s image means that Adam and Eve represent him on the earth in all their thoughts and actions. Fundamentally, being created in God's image means that Adam and Eve represent him on the earth in all their thoughts and actions. Click To TweetIt is the divine imprint of God that reflects his divine attributes and functions in the threefold office of king, priest, and prophet.

Following Adam and Eve’s marriage in 2:22-25, the narrative immediately turns to the serpent’s deception of Eve. The serpent is introduced as being “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (3:1). We learn here that the serpent is part of the created world, the same world that Adam and Eve were to exercise dominion. By associating the serpent with creation, the implication is that Adam and Eve were tasked with ruling over the serpent.

The serpent’s lie is that Adam and Eve can cast off the divine image and become gods themselves. In their eyes, representing God on earth wasn’t good enough. They wanted to be him, to have what he has, and to know what he knows. The temptation threatens all three offices of Adam and Eve, striking at the heart of being created in God’s image. As God’s images, the first couple represents him on the earth and serves on his behalf. But the serpent allures them to rid themselves of God’s image and become independent of God and function at his level.

Immediately after partaking of the fruit, Adam and Eve “realized they were naked” (3:7). The word here for “naked” is related to the Hebrew word for “crafty” (Exod 21:14; Josh 9:4; Job 5:13). A few verses earlier in 3:1, the serpent is considered “more crafty than any of the wild animals.” The point is that the couple is, as a result of the fall, beginning to take on characteristics of the serpent. [4] Instead of representing God on the earth, Adam and Eve are now beginning to represent the serpent.

This insight brings us to an important principle: images will always be transformed into the object of their worship. G. K. Beale rightly states, “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”[5]  Images are meant to imitate God on earth, so if Adam and Eve obey God, they become more like him. Their divine image was to become more and more aligned with God’s character. But, because they believed and trusted in the serpent instead of God, they began to transform into the serpent’s image. Instead of manifesting the traits of God on earth, they and their descendants will manifest the traits of the serpent. In the following verses, Adam and Eve shift the blame and are unwilling to answer the Lord truthfully (3:11-13). They, like the serpent, are attempting to deceive.

Though God mercifully begins to restore Adam and Eve’s image and the first couple once again enjoys harmony with God, the damage has been done. The first couple and the entire created order is severely affected by the Fall. Sin dwells within them and affects every aspect of their image, both functionally and ontologically. Humanity and creation are now in a state of rebellion against the creator. With Adam and Eve’s corrupted image and proclivity to assert independence of God (3:22), the Lord expels them from Eden. Ironically, Adam and Eve were to expel the serpent from the garden, but because they disobeyed, they are now expelled. Adam and Eve are unclean and deserve of God’s wrath.

Adam and Eve’s transgression in the garden plunged humanity and creation headfirst into sin. As a result, God banished them from the garden sanctuary and “drove” them out and “placed” cherubim “on the east side of the Garden of Eden…to guard the way to the tree of life” (3:23-24). Adam and Eve now find themselves exiled from God’s presence in the garden. When Cain murders his brother later in the narrative, he too is “driven from the land” and becomes a “restless wanderer on the earth…[away] from the Lord’s presence” (4:14, 16). The remainder of Genesis narrates the story of God’s people moving farther away from God’s garden sanctuary heading eastward (13:11; 25:6). As the effects of the fall begin to take root within the created realm, humanity repeatedly fails to obey God resulting in increased estrangement from God. Sinful individuals cannot dwell in God’s holy presence and survive. Sin must be punished and God must restore humanity.

Image and Idolatry in Romans 1

Much of what we’ve discovered in Genesis 1-3 is iterated in Romans 1. As many commentators point out, Paul’s mind is attuned to the Genesis narrative, especially, the fall. The result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is exile and estrangement from God’s life-giving presence. As humanity spirals into sin, they become more and more consumed with worshipping themselves and creation, thus deserving God’s wrath.

The New Testament authors were convinced that the “latter days” had dawned and that Israel and all of humanity were experiencing an unparalleled time of restoration and tribulation. Oddly, while the Old Testament expected that tribulation would precede restoration, the New Testament states that both, tribulation and restoration, overlap. John himself even admits, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev 1:9).

The “overlap of the ages” is important to our understanding of Romans 1 because as we read the opening chapter to the book we must realize that Paul is articulating the nature of sin and idolatry in the context of the “latter days.” What the Old Testament expected to take place at the very end of history is now beginning to be fulfilled in the first century. The sinful behavior that stretches from Romans 1:18-32 is not a list of generic sins, but a list of eschatological sins that culminate in sexual perversion.

Romans 1-4 confronts this issue of eschatological hostility from God without mincing words. Sin’s tyranny affects both Gentiles and Jews. Both groups must grasp that, because of their rebellion and idolatry, they deserve physical and spiritual death. Paul must also convince Gentiles that, although they do not have the “Mosaic Law” in written form, they remain legally culpable. Gentiles, according to Paul, have a clear knowledge of God. They have a natural law to convict them of idolatry and “unrighteousness” (2:15). Jews, on the other hand, contend that since they have the Mosaic Law they are righteous, without blame, and surely not idolaters. So, Paul must convince them that although they had “Law,” they were still unrighteous before God because they had grievously broken the Law. Though all humanity remains guilty before God: faith in Christ saves humanity from their sinful plight.

In 1:17, the positive side of God’s righteousness comes to the fore. It is righteousness that comes to the aid of believers and is credited to their account. Romans 1:18-3:20, however, concerns the other side of God’s righteousness: God pronounces judgment upon all those who are idolaters: “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness” (1:18). Again, this is not generic “wrath,” but “eschatological wrath.” This is the same wrath that the Old Testament predicted would arrive at the very end of history when God would consummately judge the pagan nations and idolatrous Israelites (Ezek 38:18; Dan 11:36).

According to Romans 1:18, the behavior of the Gentiles is indistinct from the behavior of idolatrous Israelites at Sinai. They, too, have failed to worship the creator and have turned to worship figurative idols. Unbelieving Gentiles believed the lie that knowledge of salvation could be attained outside of the sphere of God, outside his revelation. They were convinced that they could indeed procure independence from him (1:21). Adam and Eve’s fall is repeated here in the behavior of Gentiles. They worshiped creation instead of the Creator, a behavior is antithetical to being in God’s image. Humanity is designed to worship only God, but because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, humanity is ensnared in a spiral of idolatrous behavior. Lack of trust in God’s word inevitably leads to trust in ourselves. When we trust ourselves, we commit idolatry. When we commit idolatry, we conform to our idols. When we conform to our idols, we become enslaved to them. When we trust ourselves, we commit idolatry. When we commit idolatry, we conform to our idols. When we conform to our idols, we become enslaved to them. Click To Tweet Left to ourselves, there’s no way out.

Unbelieving Gentiles remain condemned because they have access to a “law of God,” a “law” that is evident from creation and their conscience (2:12-16). Since all Gentiles have “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image” (NASB), they are deserving of judgment. The result of this heinous idolatry was that God “gave them over” to their own wickedness and lusts (1:26-32). Paul’s words recall Psalm 106:20, where the Israelites “exchanged” the object of true worship or “their glory” for an idolatrous image. Psalm 106 alludes to the episode of the golden calf at Sinai. By referring to the idolatry of the golden calf, Paul has tapped into the first formal sin in Israel’s existence as a nation. Exodus 32 portrays Israel’s idolatrous worship of the molten calf in language describing rebellious cattle to convey the idea that Israel had become like the object of its worship. Israel is called a “stiff-necked people” who were “running wild” and “out of control” (Exod 32:9, 24-25). Sinful Israel is mocked by being depicted metaphorically as rebellious cows running amuck because the nation had become as spiritually lifeless as the inanimate golden calf.[6]

Resembling their parents in the garden, the Israelites immediately break God’s law by committing idolatry through worshipping the golden calf (Exod 32). This is, as one commentator, states, “Genesis 3 all over again.”[7] It’s not entirely clear, though, how they broke God’s law. On the surface, yes, Aaron forged a golden calf, and Israel explicitly broke the first two commandments (Exod 20:3-4). But the breach of the commandments revealed a fundamental issue in the hearts of the Israelites—a lack of trust in God’s word. God promised that he would dwell his people and that his life-giving presence would nourish and protect them (Exod 19:5-6). But they failed to believe him and took matters into their own hands. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, God’s word was deemed insufficient. The Israelites wanted to dictate the terms of their preservation. They wanted to be in charge of their destiny. They wanted to be gods.

Paul’s wording in Romans 1:26-32 also echoes Genesis 1-3. The language of “exchanging the glory of the immortal God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (1:23; NASB) recalls the early chapters of Genesis. Instead of worshipping God and giving him glory, Adam and Eve worshipped themselves in pursuing independence and committed idolatry. Paul, therefore, concludes that Adam and Israel sinned by committing heinous idolatry, and such behavior continues to be recapitulated among all sinful individuals.

Image and Idolatry Today

In a very real sense, when we sin, we repeat the fall of Adam and Eve and the nation of Israel. The story always remained the same. It wasn’t until the coming of Christ that the pattern was broken. Though he was tempted just like Adam and Eve and the nation of Israel, he remained faithful. His faithfulness is passed on to those who trust in him. It is only through Christ’s perfect life that we are freed from our idolatry and escape the wrath of God. Christ bore the unfaithful, idolatrous behavior of his people so that we could become perfectly restored images in the sight of God. We would do well to remind ourselves daily of the seriousness of our sin but the grace that is found in Christ’s work on our behalf.


[1] Portions of this essay are drawn my from forthcoming book, From Adam to Israel: A Biblical Theology of the People of God (ESBT; Downers Grove: IVP, forthcoming).

[2] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (NSBT 15; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 66.

[3] Unless noted, all translations are from the NIV (2011).

[4] Meredith G. Kline, Genesis: A New Commentary (ed. Jonathan G. Kline; Peabody, 2016), 22.

[5] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008), 16.

[6] Beale, We Become What We Worship, 76-86.

[7] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Int; Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 279.

Benjamin L. Gladd

Benjamin L. Gladd (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. Prior to joining the RTS faculty, he served as an adjunct faculty member at Wheaton College, teaching New Testament exegesis and interpretation, Greek, and introductory courses on the Old and New Testaments. He is the author of From Adam and Israel to the Church: A Biblical Theology of the People of God, Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery, Making All Things New: Eschatology in the Daily Life of the Church with Matthew Harmon and The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament with G.K. Beale.


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