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Reasons for the Wrath of God (1:21–23)
SUPPORTING IDEA: Instead of worshiping its Creator, the human race descends into idolatry and worships the creation.
1:21. “Idolatry” is a familiar word to use in the context of biblical discussions. But while we may be conversant with the idea of idolatry, we are not as well schooled on what it means to be an idolater—or the spiritual ramifications of idolatry. Paul spells it out in three short verses.
Idolatry is worship, and at the heart of worship is the attribution of glory. When people “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v. 23), they moved into idolatry. It is for the exchange of glory that God’s wrath is revealed. The Hebrew word for glory, kabod, means “weight.” If something had weight in the Old Testament, it had worth or value. In fact, it was not until after Israel’s return from captivity in Babylon that the use of coins became prominent as a medium of exchange. Up until that time, value was determined by weight of silver or gold (a shekel) or some other valued commodity (leading to admonitions against using dishonest scales or balances when doing business: Prov. 11:1; 16:11; 20:23). Therefore, the heavier something was the more valuable it was, or the more “glory” it had.
The glory of God is the measure of the weight, or worthiness, or value of God. Worship, or “worthship,” was to be ascribed only to him because nothing had more glory or value than God. Because the glory of the Lord was matchless—“Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exod. 15:11)—to give worship to anything else would be to suggest a comparison between the object worshiped and God. In light of God’s infinite worth (glory), no earthly comparison can do justice to the offense generated by giving worship to any thing or any person besides God.
Only two categories of “entities” exist in the biblical universe: Creator and created. And these two are separated by an infinite gulf of worth, or glory. Granted, of all the created things, man has more weight (worth, glory) than all the rest of creation (Ps. 8:3–9, esp. v. 5). But even so, the glory of man is not the same as the glory of the One who made man (Ps. 8:1). Humankind’s rightful place, in all its appropriate glory among the creation, is looking “up” into the face of the Creator, ascribing ultimate glory to him. When a human being looks “horizontally” at another human, or “down” (on the scale of glory) to a plant or animal, he is worshiping something that has no more—indeed less—worth than he or she does.
1:22–23. This exchange of glory is the theft of glory in no uncertain terms, and could not be more “foolish” (v. 21). Humans began ascribing “worthship” to other humans, or to birds and animals and reptiles, when “their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). Literally, they became fools and became idolaters. If “stupid is as stupid does,” then “foolish is as foolish does” as well. Idolatry is a sign of moral and spiritual depravity (the baseline of foolishness), a sign of the rejection of the glory and prominence of God.
For such foolishness the wrath of God is revealed, Paul says. The glory of God is the “heaviest” thing in the universe. To assign, through worship, the glory of the Creator to a part of the creation is to turn moral and spiritual sensitivity upside down. And such upsetting of the spiritual order of things has dreadful repercussions.
- Results of the Wrath of God (1:24–32)
SUPPORTING IDEA: Because immorality springs from idolatry, a holy God is justified in revealing his wrath against the unholy practices of the human race.
So far, Paul has said that the wrath of God is revealed against humanity in light of the suppression of truth about God. When people act as if they do not know the truth about God (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” Pss. 14:1; 53:1), then their hearts become increasingly dark and they move to idolatry. And because idols cannot speak or write, and there is no revelation to govern the people, idolatry always results in immorality (“Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint,” Prov. 29:18). The sin of the human race is getting ever more specific: first, the suppression of truth. Then, the specific sin of idolatry.
Now, Paul will catalog the specific sins that characterize the lives of those who suppress the truth about God and exchange his glory for the glory of a part of the creation. (Note: as you go through this last section, think about Rome and the people Paul was writing to. Also think of where you live and what you observe about mankind’s descent away from God into sin. See if you think Paul’s assessment of the human tendency to sin is accurate and provides justification for his saying that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.)
We said above that the wrath of God that Paul discusses here is not the judgment-type wrath that will come at the end of human history. Rather, there is an ongoing, dual manifestation of his wrath, revealed in their bodies (vv. 24–27) and in their souls, or minds (vv. 28–32). It becomes obvious that what begins as a willful choice in the realm of the spirit (idolatry, vv. 21–23) ultimately manifests itself in body and soul as well.
1:24–27. Some commentators make much of the threefold occurrence of God gave them over (vv. 24, 26, 28) to construct a three-part outline of the remainder of Romans 1. However, this seems forced in light of the clear unity of verses 24–27 and its topic of sexual immorality compared against the catalog of additional sins in verses 28–32. Therefore, rather than listing three distinct ways or reasons by which God gave them over, it is more natural to see the first two occurrences (vv. 24, 26) as being repetitive for emphasis, with the final “giving over” standing by itself as indicative of a different category.
Both in the present verses, and in verses 28–32, it is important to understand what it means that God gave them over. First, note the causality indicated in both verses 24 and 26. Verse 24 begins with Therefore (dio) and verse 26 with Because of this (dia touto). Verse 24 follows Paul’s statement that human beings have exchanged the glory of God for the “glory” of created beings, and verse 26 follows his assertion that the truth of God has been exchanged for a lie.
Rather than fine-tuning the differences between these two exchanges and their resulting, respective retributions, a more general conclusion is acceptable: humankind has, as an act of the will, chosen to replace the glory of God and the truth of God with lies that justify idol worship and unbridled moral license. As a result of these choices, God has given the human race over to the pursuit of a life based on idol worship (whether outright or subtle) and philosophies built on their own moral and speculative preferences.
When God “gives them over,” is it passive or active? That is, does he merely step out of people’s way and allow them to pursue those things which depravity dictates (“He [God] ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river” [Frederick Godet, in loc, cited by Moo, p. 111].), or does he take an active role in moving them deeper into a downward cycle of sin “like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned”? (Moo, p. 111). Certainly, both the human and divine elements are present in Scripture.
In the Old Testament, God handed over Israel’s enemies to her for their intentional destruction (Exod. 23:31; Deut. 7:23–24) and reversed the situation at other times by handing over Israel to her enemies (Lev. 26:25; Josh. 7:7; Judg. 2:14; 6:1, 13). These military examples are particularly instructive since God’s passively stepping out of the way and allowing war to take its inevitable result might or might not have accomplished his will or purpose. In fact, examples exist of the exact opposite of what one might have expected to happen militarily. In these cases, the active “giving over” of God is the only explanation (see, for example, the defeat of 185,000 Assyrians [2 Kgs. 19:35], and the victory of Ai over Israel [Josh. 7:3–5]). The case of Job being given into the hands of Satan is another example of God’s active involvement (though in this case not for purposes of retribution; Job 1:12; 2:6).
Another clear picture arises from Paul’s use of the same word (paradidomi) that he uses in Romans 1. In 1 Corinthians 5:5 Paul decides that a believer in the church at Corinth needs to be delivered over to Satan “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” This involved not a passive standing aside by Paul and the leaders of the church (allowing the man to remain a part of the fellowship), but the action of expelling him from the fellowship, delivering him to the realm of the devil. In the closest parallel found to Paul’s words in Romans 1, Ephesians 4:17–19 discusses Gentiles who have arrived at the same depraved state as Paul describes in Romans. But in Ephesians, he says that they “have given themselves over to sensuality” (paradidomi, Eph. 4:19), which certainly involves active, not passive choices on their parts.
It is best to conclude that God takes an active involvement in giving people over to the desires of their hearts. Certainly they are responsible for their choices, and in some sense God may be viewed as allowing sin to take its normal course. But in the end, God’s giving those who bear his image over to sin is an active process on his part, whether for reform or for retribution or both. As has been well stated, “the punishment of sin is sin.”
And to what did God give them over? To sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. Note that the giving over was in the context of the sinful desires of their hearts. The sin was present in the heart before it was manifested in the body. Paul’s reference in verse 24 is a general statement of sexual immorality that resulted from idolatry, amplified in verse 26. One of the most shocking discoveries of modern archaeology has been the evidence of unbridled immorality associated with pagan worship practices. In any culture, the character of worshipers is a good indicator of the character of the worshiped. When gods are created with connections to sexual activity (such as fertility gods and goddesses), then sexual activity by worshipers is what is deemed necessary to placate the god. In general, Paul says, idolatry will ultimately lead to immorality.
The USA has the only large mainstream church ever to consecrate an openly gay bishop (Gene Robinson), the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. A vast majority voted in an openly gay pastor of the biggest Evangelical Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, MN (Bradley Schmeling), as the senior pastor. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is now allowing openly gay men and women in same-sex relationships to be ordained as clergy.—Edward D. Andrews.
Acceptance of homosexuality is rising across the broad spectrum of American Christianity, including among members of churches that strongly oppose homosexual relationships as sinful, according to an extensive Pew Research Center survey of U.S. religious beliefs and practices.—Pew Research Center.
But then Paul moves to the most graphic evidence of the complete inversion of the spiritual and therefore moral compass of the human species. It is not just sexual immorality to which God has given them over, it is sexual inversion and perversion. Homosexuality was rampant in the Roman Empire (fourteen of the first fifteen emperors practiced homosexuality; Hughes, Romans, p. 44), and represented perhaps the greatest offense to Jewish sensibilities. As Jewish and Gentile believers in the church in Rome looked around their society, they would have seen homosexuality practiced and encouraged at every turn.
It seems that Paul has chosen homosexuality as the nadir of sinful expression because of its complete reversal of God’s natural order. Some forms of sexual immorality (perhaps that referred to in v. 24?) at least falls within the natural order of male-female relations. But homosexuality (vv. 26–27) so totally moves out of the realm of what is natural that it indicates a total throwing off of the revealed will and design of God. It is as if those practicing it have said, “There is no order, reason, or logic associated with anything. We are free to experiment and create at will. We have become as gods, creating new orders and practices of our own.”
Homosexuality, while perhaps not the most hurtful of sins (as say, compared to murder), is certainly the ultimate in arrogance and sinful rebellion against the order of God. It is frightful to consider what happened to the Roman Empire after reaching a point of immorality, which championed homosexuality (not tolerated, but championed), and then to look at modern cultures which have devolved to a similar place morally.
Paul’s last words in verse 27—received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion—are the most frightful of all. What is the penalty? Is that penalty delivered culturally as well as individually? How many innocents suffer as a result of the error of others? And yet the penalty of homosexuality is not inevitable. Paul says that practicing homosexuals (along with some others) will not inherit the kingdom of God, but former homosexuals can (1 Cor. 6:9–11). When homosexuals, or any other person, is washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11), then they are freed, at least eternally, from the penalty for their perversion.
1:28–32. Finally, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind. Knowledge is retained in the mind, and sinful humankind has decided it is not worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God. This must refer to thoughts about God, the function of the conscience, the mental evaluations that even a pagan goes through about who and where God is and how one may know him. When people do not pursue these God-given internal and external evidences (see Eccl. 3:11; Acts 17:23–31), they gradually develop minds characterized continually by depravity—as in the days of Noah: “Every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). It is characteristic of a depraved mind to reverse the importance of everything, including evil and its origin.
Jesus Christ had this discussion with his disciples after talking to the religious leaders in his day. The Pharisees thought if they kept the exterior of their lives “clean” through religious ritual that the inner condition of their heart would be hidden. But Jesus said that it was their heart (the inner man) that actually determined what would appear on the outside, and that it was impossible to stop it. The heart, he said, is the source of all evil thoughts and actions (Mark 7:20–23).
Paul is saying essentially the same thing here. The inner motivations of humanity are depraved and result in outward behavior. The list of depraved behaviors and practices defies certain categorization as did most “vice lists” common in the moral literature of Paul’s day (see similar lists in the New Testament in Matt. 15:19; 1 Cor. 5:10–11; 6:9–10; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 4:31; 5:3–4; Col. 3:5, 8; 1 Tim. 1:9–10; 2 Tim 3:2–4; 1 Pet. 2:1; 4:3). But Moo has found what logical and linguistic handles do exist, translating them as follows:
- The first four are general in focus: “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, greed, wickedness.”
- The next five revolve around envy and its consequences: “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice.”
- The last twelve cover slander (two), arrogance (four), and then six related by form more than by content: “gossips, maligners, haters of God, proud, arrogant, overbearing, devisers of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, without faithfulness, without affection, without mercy” (Moo, pp. 118–119).
Paul, writing to those who undoubtedly knew of his past as a persecutor of Christian believers, concludes with what must have been a difficult thing to write (except that Paul never had any difficulty in exulting in the grace of God that saved a sinner like himself). He points out that those who act with depraved indifference are worthy of death—and know they deserve to die (Rom. 6:23). Yet they continue! And not only do they continue in the same acts, but also approve of those who practice them (1:32).
It was Paul, the zealot, who had stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen, the church’s first martyr, in Jerusalem. He did not watch passively, rather he “was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 8:1), “guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:20). Granted, Paul’s “approval” was small. He was only one person on that day who approved of the murder of a man. But as a result of his small piece of the puzzle being added to all the other pieces of the puzzle of persecution that day, “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). It is possible that giving approval to sin can, in the long run, result in even greater condemnation.
Consider the attitude toward members of the black race in the post-emancipation Southern United States. How many lynch mobs were made up of people who would never have committed the sin of murder themselves individually, but by standing on the edge of the crowd gave tacit approval to what was taking place? By being there, they were helping to foment an environment of intolerance and racism and hatred. Had they been evil enough to commit the murder themselves, that would have been sinful. But to help create an environment where others are emboldened to sin, resulting in the deaths of many more, may even deserve greater condemnation.
One can only cringe at the “wrath of God” that awaits those public officials in government who, by passing legislation which not only does not restrain evil but in fact encourages it, have made it possible for millions to yield to the temptation to sin. It is true that many, weak in conviction, conscience, and caring, will not sin when they think that public sentiment is against them. But remove the restraints of moral imperatives, and sin multiplies. One of the responsibilities of leadership is to encourage righteousness and thereby restrain sin (see Rom. 13:1–7).
Paul concludes this section with a point to which he adds a counterpoint beginning with 2:1. Those who sin and approve others who do are obviously guilty and deserving of the wrath of God. But what about those who do not approve of the sin of others, those who make moral judgments about the sins they see around them? Are they as deserving of the wrath of God? Paul will answer that question next.
MAIN IDEA REVIEW: Because humankind has chosen to reject the clear evidence of God’s existence and rule, God has allowed the human race to demonstrate to itself exactly how devastating life can be when lived in rebellion against God.
By Kenneth Boa and William Kruidenier