In the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains the universal need for righteousness (Romans 1—3). In this section, Paul writes of the “godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18) and then makes a significant statement about such people in Romans 1:22: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (KJV).
Previously, Paul explained that he values the opportunity to preach the gospel (the good news about Jesus the Christ, or Messiah), because that good news is God’s power to deliver people from their sin and restore them to a right relationship to God (Romans 1:16). While that good news includes specific details that hadn’t been known previously, the basic idea that God saves people by grace through faith was not new; that had been revealed in the Scriptures long before—righteousness has always been by faith (Romans 1:17).
The problem is that people are unrighteous, separated from God, and in need of His righteousness. In His holiness, God has revealed His anger toward those who have suppressed His truth in their unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). God has made the truth about Himself evident to everyone (Romans 1:19). Through His creation He has shown everyone His invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature to the extent that everyone is without excuse (Romans 1:20). Everyone is accountable for the evidence that God exists and what is revealed about Him in the natural world. Sadly, in unrighteousness, people have refused to honor Him as God and to be grateful for all He has done. In rejecting Him, people have turned to alternative explanations that are speculative (Romans 1:21)—anything to explain away the Designer so as not to be accountable to Him. That willful blindness darkens the heart even further, and “professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”
Even as mankind increases in knowledge and struts his “wisdom,” he remains foolish about the things that really matter. There is no more basic foolishness than to deny the existence of God (Psalm 14:1), and there is no more basic wisdom than to fear God (Psalm 111:10). “Where is the wise person? . . . Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:20–21).
When we reject the Designer, we have to try to explain away His design that is so evident throughout His creation. In our proclaimed wisdom, because we refuse to be subject to the Designer, we contrive foolish explanations to dismiss the natural order and design. This is the significance of the statement in Romans 1:22 that “professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” Paul is challenging his readers not to make that mistake but to acknowledge God instead.
All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and the penalty for that sin is death (Romans 6:23). But God has revealed how we can be righteous and have a relationship with Him (Romans 3:21–22): we can receive His grace through belief in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24 and 3:28). Rather than “professing themselves to be wise” and therefore become “fools,” Paul wants his readers to actually be wise and put their trust in Jesus Christ.