Posted On February 15, 2021

Futile Thoughts, Foolish Hearts

by | Feb 15, 2021 | Theology

Recently, we’ve been walking through Romans 1:18-32 for Sunday School. This passage teaches us that all men, women, boys, and girls know God is real because He has shown it to them. But they deny this reality and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. And then Romans 1:21 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

It is the latter part of this verse that I want to consider in today’s post.

Futile in Their Thinking

This does not mean that lost persons are unable to have intelligent thought. By God’s common grace lost persons have contributed amazing inventions and works to society. In fact, there are lost people all over the world with amazing IQs. We would call them brilliant people. Lost people, therefore, are still able to have intelligent and even rational thought.

The problem is, their thinking is ultimately futile. It’s ultimately worthless because it is the construction of a false reality and if their current thinking was carried to its logical end there would be nothing left but gross immorality and absolute anarchy for nothing would matter. Thankfully, God does not allow many to play out the full ramifications of their fantasy, but I think in some ways we are certainly seeing this play out more and more in America today.

Let me use a biblical illustration to show more the idea of “futile thinking.” Do you remember the tower of Babel? What ingenuity and creativity and engineering it took to create such a tower. The power of the human mind really is impeccable, isn’t it? But you see, though this demonstrated the power of human intelligence, it also demonstrates the futility of human thinking. They were going to make a tower to reach up to God. They were going to stand up to God and shake their fist at Him and do their own thing. How futile. And, of course, we know how that ended for them.

So, instead of thinking pure, beautiful, and glorious thoughts about God, unbelievers fill their minds with futile thoughts. They live as though all they will accomplish matters, when in reality, if God is not honored, nothing matters.

Their Foolish Hearts Were Darkened

William Hendriksen notes, “In Paul’s epistles, the word heart occurs more than fifty times. The heart, according to Paul and Scripture in general, is the hub of the wheel of man’s existence, the mainspring of all his thoughts, words, and deeds. It is the motive power hidden away deep within man; so deeply, in fact, that God, He alone, knows its secrets.”

So, two things Paul mentions about the heart here: What are they?


It is Foolish

Now, this is interesting because the word here means “without understanding.” And yet, Paul has already made the point that the things about God were clearly perceived! So which is it!? Well, verse 21 is saying that lost persons have not made proper use of the understanding that they have and thus, their hearts are foolish.

But not only are they foolish hearts. They are also,


This is moral. Or, more aptly put, immoral. The unbelieving heart is sinful. This is why Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” It’s why Jesus says in Matthew 15:18-19, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Robert Mounce says, “To turn from the light of revelation is to head into darkness. Sin inevitably results in a darkening of some aspect of human existence.”

So, the heart of mankind is darkened.

Now, you say, yes, but lost people still love, right? Yes, they do. Lost persons still love their children. They might even love America. They might even love good and noble things. But every aspect of the heart, and the affections, and the love, and the thoughts, and the feelings, and the desires, and emotions, and all of it has been darkened. It has been affected by sin in such a way that, in the words of Psalm 119:70, the heart is unfeeling like fat toward the things of God.

Now, with that in mind, I want to also mention 1 Samuel 16:7. This is where Samuel is looking for the next king of Israel after Saul. And he sees Jesse’s son, Eliab, and thinks, this is the one! But God says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

On the interwebs there is a little inspiration quote out there that floats around and maybe you’ll see it on social media, or maybe even printed in a store on a little poster, or calendar, or something and it says this:


Alright, well, there you have it. God knows my heart so *sticks tongue out*. But, what I’m actually saying here is, this is not good news for humanity. We create this fanciful reality where we think all of our intentions and motivations and feelings are righteous and good and unquestionably moral and upright. So much so that we base truth on what we feel don’t we? If a person “feels” this or that then that is what becomes truth for them (in their own mind). That’s because we place a rather high value on what we feel. We think much higher of our hearts than we ought.

1 Samuel 16:7 says God looks on the heart. And Romans 1:21 lets us in on what the heart of an unbeliever looks like: It’s dark. The light is not there. Righteousness is not there. It loves what it shouldn’t love. It despises what it shouldn’t despise. It is twisted and mixed up and depraved.

What we really need is a new heart.

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1 Comment

  1. Dana

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been meditating on this passage as well. Your post suggests that our darkened hearts is the cause of our foolishness and futile thinking but could it be that darkened hearts is the result of our futile thinking rather than the cause of it? Darkened is an aorist indicative passive tense. I’m not a Greek expert but it sounds like the darkening which Paul speaks of is something that was done to them (passive) in the past (aorist) rather than something they were born with. The indicative mood does not imply a condition that always existed but rather a condition that is assumed to currently exist based on a past action done to the subject by another.

    Paul’s point seems to be that although at one time they knew about God, they decided not to acknowledge him or give thanks to him but instead they decided to focus their thoughts on futile things and as a result, God darkened their hearts in judgement. Now, with darkened hearts, they are no longer able to see what was once available to them. Paul’s concern then is pastoral rather than philosophical. He wants the church in Rome to avoid the same fate and avoid such futile thinking. He is not so much concerned that we simply understand why there is so much ungodliness in the world. He wants us to avoid ungodliness and the danger of futile thinking.


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