21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
1901 ASV Translation:
21 because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.
There is a minor spelling variation between the Textus Receptus and the Nestle/Aland 26 in respect to the word translated "were thankful/gave thanks". Both spellings have the same meaning and parse the same way.
I. Paul began 1:19 with a transition word that is not widely used by him and means "on this account"; in the text before us he again uses the same word to introduce his thinking in verse 21. The implication is that these two verses are major explanations for his claim in 1:18 that God's commitment is to the revelation of His retributive vengeance.
A. 1:19-20 detail the fact that God's wrath is being manifested from heaven on a regular, on-going basis "because" the "known thing" regarding God is "clearly seen".
B. 1:21 details the fact that God's wrath is being manifested from heaven on a regular, on-going basis "because" man deliberately rejected what he "knew" in a blatant refusal to accept God as He is -- a refusal that consisted of two sub-issues...
1. He refused to "glorify" the God as "God".
a. The word "glorify" means "to attribute characteristics/attributes to someone/some thing".
b. Man's refusal to acknowledge the "eternal power" and "personality" of God (the two matters of God's "glory" that are inescapably "known" by man) was, fundamentally, a refusal to ascribe power and personality to the God.
c. At some point, someone is going to have to ask "why?" Why did man refuse to glorify the God as "God"?
1) The Genesis 3 account of the "temptation" of Eve/Adam gives us an answer on one level of reasoning: man did not "believe" God.
2) But, the same account gives us another answer at a more significant level of reasoning: man did not "love" God.
a) Man is presented in Genesis 3 as, at least, a "semi-intelligent" being who opted for "self-love" in opposition to "other-love". This choice was fundamentally self-preservative in focus even though it was actually self-destructive in fact and act.
b) Man's greatest need is not "faith": man's greatest need is "love". But, this greatest need is also the most difficult objective to achieve in created beings. It is no accident that Paul wrote that "faith, hope, and love" abide, but that the greatest of these is "love".
c) But, even this can be a "begging of the question" if we do not ask "why did man opt for self-love over other-love?" How was it that the majority of the angels opted for "love" when a large minority of them did not? How is it that man followed in the train of those who did not?
d) The answer seems to rest in one fact: man did not "like" what he was discovering about God in terms of what God was like. Man, apparently, wanted God to be free of the "attribute" of love so that he could be free from it too. At some point man began to realize that the "love" of God was a "willingness to sacrifice Himself for the sake of others" and man did not want to become like that -- a sacrifice for others. This means that man's fundamental reason for refusing to acknowledge the God as God was that he had latched on to his privileges as his rights and did not have any interest in giving them up for the sake of another.
2. He refused to "give thanks".
a. In the power and personality of God is the "inherent" understanding that God is in personal (here is the issue of personality) control (here is the issue of eternal power) of the universe through His omnipotence.
1) This means that the outworking of events is "under His dominion".
2) Therefore, the outworking of events is precisely what God "wants" to happen.
a) There are those who say that God does not "want" this, or that, to happen; and, to a certain degree, they are correct.
i. This, obviously, means we have to address the "certain degree" of "correctness".
ii. When God forbids a thing, it should be "obvious" that He does not "want" that thing done.
iii. That all evil finds a response of white hot anger in God should make it "obvious" that He is not "pleased" (i.e. He did not "want") when it occurs.
b) But, obviously, if God doesn't "want" a thing to be, He can certainly stop it from becoming reality.
c) Thus, one must first understand the tiered reality of "wants" which consists in some things that are mutually exclusive. One cannot fulfill both the "want" to overeat and the "want" to abstain from gluttony; though one can "want" both. With God, He cannot fulfill the "want" to execute justice and the "want" to exercise mercy simultaneously; though He can certainly "want" both. This is no small thing: only in deity can all things be in perfect harmony and balance and only by sharing "his divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) can creatures live in that harmony and balance. Also, we must understand that, in the tiered reality of "wants", all "wants" bring certain things along with them that are essential to the fulfillment of the "want". For example, if God "wants" man to do good, He "must" impart to him a heart, a mind, and a spirit that will make "doing good" at least possible, if not inevitable. The "heart", and the "mind", and the "spirit" are essential to the over-riding want: they are inescapable aspects of the fulfillment of the want. On the other hand, if God "wants" a man to be able to "know Him", He must set things up so that all of the attributes of His character can be perceived by that man. This means that there will "have" to be some (evil) things that require the exercise of longsuffering; there will "have" to be some (evil) things that set the stage for "justice"; there will "have" to be some (evil) things that call for "wrath"; etc. Thus, because God "wants" to share His life with a created personality, He has to bring all things into play that are included in that "want". [Please Note: everyone wrestles with this issue of where evil has its origins and why God "permits" what He "hates". Everyone. Some say that the answer is in the "free will of man". But, this does not do what they assume it will do in answering the problem. They assume it will take the "blame" for evil off of God and put it on man. But, the truth of the matter is this: it is only the fact that God, in the thinking of these making this assumption, has "elevated" man's "free" will to a sacrosanct position of "inviolability" that makes evil "permissible" in God's universe. But, is it not true that if God "wants" man's "free will" to be sacrosanct, He has to set things up so that that "will" is not "run over by His power"? And, is it not true that He is going to "run over that will by His power" in the day of judgment? Freedom of will is, obviously -- by reason of judgment -- not sacrosanct. What is sacrosanct with God? Apparently this: the sharing of His life with those who are willing to trust Him in the context of what He is willing to permit within His creation to accomplish this sacrosanct objective.
b. Man's refusal to "give thanks" is nothing less than a blatant statement of dissatisfaction with God's oversight in power.
1) Inherent in this blatant rejection of God's oversight is the assumption by man of a greater moral purity and wisdom than God's. Any time a man refuses to give thanks, he is declaring that if he had the "power of God", his "wisdom" would enable him to do a better job than God is currently doing. "Professing himself to be 'wise', he is a fool".
2) By the same token, when a man "gives thanks", he is verbally expressing his agreement that what God is doing is a good and beneficial thing.
3) The problem with man is that his "agreement" and his lack of "agreement" are almost always rooted in a perspective that is consumed by man's self-serving way of evaluating things. Man gives thanks when blessing is flowing his way because he is the recipient of the good; and he refuses to be thankful when things are flowing his way that do not make him "happy". He gives little or no thought about anyone else and whether blessing is flowing to them, or not. This is the magnitude of the problem with man: he thinks first, and many times only, of himself.
II. The Co-Actions of Man's Refusals.
A. The first thing Paul mentions is that man's "reason" became "vain".
1. The noun form of this word is never used "positively" in the New Testament ... it always signifies a way of thinking that is corrupt. In all but a couple of texts, the same is true of the verb form. There is a preponderance of prejudice in the use of this word that makes one think of a tendency to argue against the truth. Interestingly, the New Testament makes the "heart" the source of these "arguments". Point: when values compete with each other, there is almost never a good result. The reason? The heart is already corrupt and the values it holds are also. "Reasoning" invariably follows the "heart"; the heart does not "follow" the reasoning.
2. This is almost a "chicken and egg" problem: which came first? Did man's "reason" go sour so that his refusals began to take place, or did man's refusals begin to drive his "reason"?
3. In the record of Genesis 3, it was clearly man's "reasoning" that went haywire first; but, as soon as it went haywire and produced evil, man's "reasoning" began to be "self-justifying".
4. Thus, the two feed on each other. Technically, reason was first corrupted and after that it began to be driven by his refusal to yield to God. This very well may be an example of what Paul had in mind in Romans 16:18 when he mentioned the deception of the "simple".
5. The "vanity" of reason signals a failure to be able to accomplish its purposes; that is vain which cannot produce what is valued. Paul, however, actually says that the people were made vain, not their "reasonings". In other words, the reasonings were corrupted because the people had already succumbed to corruption. Thus, the point is that the people cannot achieve their objectives [they were made 'vain', i.e. incompetent] because they argue against the truth.
B. The second thing Paul mentions is the darkening of the "heart".
1. An enlightened "heart" has no problem with "God" being "the God" and embracing the divine methods without reservation.
2. When the light is reduced to darkness in the "heart" man begins to have all manner of problems with "the will of God" and His methods for bringing it to pass.
3. The "heart" is here, as in most places, the center of values that attempts to answer the question, "what is important?". When the answer is, "I am", the darkness is pervasive; when the answer is "God is", the light is brilliant. By Paul's use of the term "heart" we understand that it has powerful desires (1:24; 10:1) [this is the reason we understand "heart" to refer to the value system held by an individual]; that it is predisposed to "impenitence" (2:5); that God has not created it as a clean slate (2:15); that it is only effective for godliness if it has been "circumcised" by the Spirit of God (2:29); that the Holy Spirit is the One Who has the ability to alter its values (5:5); that it governs man absolutely (6:17); that it is the focus of God's searching evaluation (8:27); that a person is affected emotionally when the values of the heart are frustrated (9:2); that it has "argumentative" capacities over what it will "commit to" in terms of values (10:6); that it is the crucial place of "conviction of what is true" (10:8-10), so much so that one is "justified" if one "believes in the heart"; and that the "simple" can be led astray relatively easily (16:18).
III. The Bottom Line: Man is so terrified by the possibility of being subjected to eternal torment that he grasps, like a man drowning, at anything and everything that might "secure" him from that fate except the God Who has the ability to determine whether man will be secure or not. Thus, Jesus' words "...fear Him Who is able to destroy both body and soul in Hell..." point man in the proper direction. In a final sense, "love" would always yield to whatever the need of the "other" required -- even if it was Hell -- but man is afraid to love like that.