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Romans: 1:18-28 Notes

Romans 1:18-32 Commentary

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,

The word "for" (gar) links verse 18 to the preceding verses. Paul "has been talking about the righteousness of God as it is seen and expressed through the gospel and related to through faith. Now he will go on to explain what God's righteousness amounts to for those who have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, namely, God's wrath."1 It is "humanity's sinfulness and consequent exposure to the wrath of God that made the revelation of God's righteousness through the gospel necessary."2

The wrath of God is a present, ongoing reality. It is revealed when God inflicts his wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. While God will inflict his wrath on the day of judgment (2:5, 8; 3:5; 9:22; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 5:9) he also inflicts his wrath in history by handing humans over to their sin and its consequences (1:24-28).

Paul further characterizes the people who are guilty of "ungodliness" and "unrighteousness" as those who "suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness." "Truth" in the NT is not simply something to which one must give mental assent; it is something to be done, to be obeyed. When people act sinfully, rebelling against God's just rule, they fail to embrace the truth and so suppress it. In this case, as Meyer says, they "do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition."3

The truth that people have unrighteously suppressed and rejected is that the one true God should be honored and worshiped and esteemed as God. We have seen that the righteousness of God is based on a desire to see his name honored. Paul uses the word "unrighteousness" (ἀδικία) twice in verse 18 to describe the sin of human beings. Human unrighteousness most fundamentally consists in a refusal to worship God and a desire to worship that which is in the created order. Unrighteousness involves the refusal to give God his proper sovereignty in one's life. Since refusal to honor and glorify God is described in terms of ἀδικία, we have a clue here that both the saving and judging righteousness of God are rooted in a desire to see his name glorified. His wrath is inflicted upon the world because he is not prized, esteemed, and glorified.4

19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

Does gnoston ("what can be known about God") refer to what is actually known about God or to what is knowable about God? Verses 21 ("they knew God"), 28 ("they did not see fit to acknowledge God"), and 32 ("they fully know God's righteous decree") indicate that Paul is saying that in some sense they actually know God.

The word translated 'known' is found only here in Paul's writings but fourteen times elsewhere in the NT, and in every case it refers to something that is known or being made known, not something that may be known. This would support the translation of 1:19a as 'what is known about God'. The reason why what is known about God 'is plain to them' is that God himself 'has made it plain to them'. What the apostle means by this is spelled out in 1:20.5

20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.

God's eternal power and divine nature/deity are known through observing the created world.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings "see" and "understand" from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God's existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul's wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to "understand" something about God's existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul's argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19-20).6

This comports with what we know of Greco-Roman reflection on such matters. For example, Cicero argues that when one examines the heavens and earth one cannot but believe that some god or higher power is responsible for such a magnificent, intricately designed, and enormous structure (Tusculan Disputations 1.29.70). In fact, in the Greek philosophical tradition, natural theology goes back at least to Plato (Timaeus 28A-30C, 32A-35A) and was continued by his successors (e.g., Aristotle, De Mund. 6.397b-399b). This tradition of natural theology is found in early Jewish thinkers influenced by both their own tradition and the Greco-Roman tradition (e.g., Philo, Rewards and Punishments 43-46; Abraham 33.185; Josephus, Antiquities 1.154-56). So Paul stands in a long and time-honored line of those who have reflected about natural theology. But behind natural theology is, in the case of these Jewish writers, a theology of natural revelation. Paul believes, as Rom. 1.19 states, that there is only knowledge of God available through nature, because God has chosen to reveal himself in that fashion. He does not speak of humans ascending to or pursuing knowledge of God on their own.7

21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.

The failure of people to acknowledge God explains why they are without excuse (1:20). The following verses suggest the futility in thought refers to idolatry.

In the NT, "heart" is broad in its meaning, denoting "the thinking, feeling, willing ego of man, with particular regard to his responsibility to God." We can understand, then, how Paul can describe the heart as being "without understanding" and recognize also how comprehensive is this description of fallen humanity. At the very center of every person, where the knowledge of God, if it is to have any positive effects, must be embraced, there has settled a darkness-a darkness that only the light of the gospel can penetrate.8

22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

In refusing to pay homage to God when his works are recognized, people claim to be acquiring wisdom. In reality, however, it is the opposite: they are "becoming foolish." From v. 23, it is clear that this foolishness involves not only refusing to worship the true God but also embracing false gods.9

23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

The language of this verse echoes Ps 106:20; Jer 2:11.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves.

The word "therefore" indicates that God hands over humans in response to their rejection of him. There is both a divine and human side to this. People already had impure desires. Eph 4:19 says the Gentiles gave themselves up to sin.

But the meaning of "hand over" demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator of the process. God does not simply let the boat go-he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin.10

25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

"The truth of God" is not "the truth God has made known and belongs to him," but the reality, the fact of God as he has revealed himself. The Thessalonian Christians, Paul writes, have reversed this exchange; they "turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God" (1 Thess. 1:9).11

26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones,

Verses 26-27 make it clear that the "dishonorable passions" are illicit homosexual passions.

The extent to which Paul characterizes this exchange as a violation of God's created order depends on the significance of the words "natural" and "nature" in this verse. Paul generally uses the word "nature" to describe the way things are by reason of their intrinsic state or birth, and in these cases there is no clear reference to divine intention. Some scholars in recent years especially, noting this, have argued that Paul does not here brand homosexuality as a violation of God's will. He is only, they argue, following his own cultural prejudices by characterizing homosexual relations as being against what is "usually" the case. But Paul's use of the word "nature" in this verse probably owes much to Jewish authors, particularly Philo, who included sexual morality as part of "natural law" and therefore as a divine mandate applicable to all people. Violations of this law, as in the case of Sodom, are therefore considered transgressions of God's will. In keeping with the biblical and Jewish worldview, the heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God's creative intent. Sexual sins that are "against nature" are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul's appeal to "nature" in this verse includes appeal to God's created order. Confirmation can be found in the context. In labeling the turning from "the natural use" to "that [use] which is against nature" an "exchange," Paul associates homosexuality with the perversion of true knowledge of God already depicted in vv. 23 and 25. In addition, we must remember that the clause in question is a description of "sinful passions," a phrase plainly connoting activities that are contrary to God's will. When these factors are considered, it is clear that Paul depicts homosexual activity as a violation of God's created order, another indication of the departure from true knowledge and worship of God.12

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman tradition there was a long history of seeing such behavior as "unnatural" or counter to the way God originally created and intended things to be (Plato, Laws 1.2; Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.758; Lev. 18.22; 20.13; Philo, Abraham 26.135; Special Laws 2.14.50; Josephus, Apion 2.25, 199; 2 Enoch 10.4). Paul certainly believes there is a natural order of things that God put into creation which ought to be followed.13

The early church fathers interpreted Paul's statement in 1:26 that their 'women [lit. 'females'] exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones' as female homosexual practice. For example, Ambrosiaster says: 'Paul tells us that these things came about, that a woman should lust after another woman, because God was angry at the human race because of its idolatry', and Chrysostom maintains: 'But when God abandons a person to his own devices, then everything is turned upside down. Thus not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was too. . . . How disgraceful it is when even the women sought after these things, when they ought to have a greater sense of shame than men have'.14

27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Verse 27 gives no indication that only specific kinds of homosexual activity are prohibited. Instead, homosexual relations in general are indicted.15

In calling the homosexual activity that brings about this penalty an "error," Paul does not diminish the seriousness of the offense, for this word often denotes sins of unbelievers in the NT. In claiming that this penalty for homosexual practice is received "in themselves," Paul may suggest that the sexual perversion itself is the punishment. On the other hand, this could be a vivid way of saying that those who engage in such activities will suffer eternal punishment; they will receive "in their own persons" God's penalty for violation of his will. This punishment, Paul says, was "necessary," by which he probably means that God could not allow his created order to be so violated without there being a just punishment.16

Jewett, who recognizes that Paul condemns all forms of homosexual activity, suggests that the apostle included this in his letter to the Romans in order to encourage slaves who were being sexually exploited by their masters:

> While the Jewish background of Paul's heterosexual preference has been frequently cited as decisive by previous researchers, little attention has been given to the correlation between homosexuality and slavery. The right of masters to demand sexual services from slaves and freedmen is an important factor in grasping the impact of Paul's rhetoric, because slavery was so prominent a feature of the social background of most of Paul's audience in Rome.... I suggest that Paul's rhetoric may provide entrée into the similarly unhappy experience of Christian slaves and former slaves who had experienced and resented sexual exploitation, both for themselves and for their children, in a culture marked by aggressive bisexuality.... For those members of the Roman congregation still subject to sexual exploitation by slave owners or former slave owners who are now functioning as patrons, the moral condemnation of same-sex and extra-marital relations of all kinds would confirm the damnation of their exploiters and thus raise the status of the exploited above that of helpless victims with no prospect of retribution.17

28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.

Paul makes a play on words here. He says that since people did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, he gave them over into the tyranny of a mind that was not worthwhile/depraved, a mind that Cranfield describes as 'so debilitated and corrupted as to be a quite untrustworthy guide in moral decisions'.18

People who have refused to acknowledge God end up with minds that are "disqualified" from being able to understand and acknowledge the will of God. The result, of course, is that they do things that are "not proper." As in 1:21, Paul stresses that people who have turned from God are fundamentally unable to think and decide correctly about God and his will. This tragic incapacity is the explanation for the apparently inexplicable failure of people to comprehend, let alone practice, biblical ethical principles. Only the work of the Spirit in "renewing the mind [nous]" (Rom. 12:2) can overcome this deep-seated blindness and perversity.19

Paul describes what should not be done in verses 29-31.

29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips,

The Textus Receptus, following L Ψ 88 326 330 614 Byz Lect syrh arm al, contains porneia ("fornication") after adikia ("unrighteousness") and before ponēria ("wickedness"). The UBS4 believes the word was inserted into the text when ponēria was read as porneia. "The fact, however, that Paul argues (verses 24-25) that such vices as listed here issue from the licentious practices of idolatry, makes it unlikely that he would have included porneia within the list itself."20

Some terms in this vice list are nearly synonymous and an overlap of meaning occurs between them.

30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents,

The sin of human self-exaltation before both God and other people is conveyed in the next three words, "proud [insolent]," "arrogant," and "overbearing [boastful]." Trench distinguishes them, arguing that the first focuses on activities, the second on thoughts, and the third on words. Without making these distinctions absolute, they capture accurately enough the nuances of the words.21

Jewett notes that those who disobeyed their parents were 'perceived by ancient Jews and Romans as profoundly dangerous. Deut 21:18-21 prescribed the death penalty for children who are disobedient to their mothers and fathers. While there are no indications that this law was enforced among Jews of the first century, there was frequent stress "on the honour and respect due to parents". Roman law was even more severe, as Seneca the Elder reminded his audience of the ancient practice: "Remember, fathers expected absolute obedience from their children and could punish recalcitrant children even with death". . . . Such authority was still an important factor in Roman family and political life in the first century'.22

31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless.

A "senseless" person describes a person who can no longer comprehend the will of God. Like the "fool" of Proverbs he pursues activities harmful to both himself and others.23

32 Although they fully know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.

Paul speaks of what all people, Jews and Gentiles, can know of God's judgment (cf. 2:14-15). People have some awareness that what they do is wrong and deserves to be punished by God. In this context the phrase "deserve to die" may refer to the final condemnation of the wicked.

[T]he person who commits evil, even though his or her actions are inexcusable, can at least plead the mitigating circumstances of the passion of the moment. Those who encourage others to practice evil do so from a settled and impassioned conviction. Cranfield says: "But there is also the fact that those who condone and applaud the vicious actions of others are actually making a deliberate contribution to the setting up of public opinion favourable to vice, and so to the corruption of an indefinite number of other people." The full extent of the rejection of God becomes evident in such an attitude. His judgment is known, yet people are encouraged to pursue evil anyway. Those who encourage others to pursue evil commit a greater evil in that they foment the spread of evil and are complicit in the destruction of others. The hatred of God is so entrenched that people are willing to risk future judgment in order to carry out their evil desires. Once again the text hints that the fundamental sin that informs all others is a refusal to delight in or submit to God's lordship. God's wrath is rightly inflicted on those who not only practice evil but find their greatest delight in it.24


Is This Passage Describing Jews or Gentiles?

Verse 18 may serve as the theme for all of 1:18-3:20, but we can still ask whether 1:19-32 is primarily describing Jews or Gentiles.

Traditionally it has been assumed the passage depicts Gentiles, but there are some reasons put forth to reject or qualify this assumption:

  1. The object of God's wrath are called "people" (anthropon) instead of "Gentiles" (ethne).
  2. Verse 23 alludes to both Ps 106:20 and Jer 2:11, which describe the idolatry of Israel.
  3. The turning to idolatry is described in language reminiscent of OT descriptions of the fall, suggesting all humanity is in view, and the golden calf incident, suggesting Jews are included.
  4. Some commentators think the transition from 1:32 to 2:1 is smoother if the people indicted in 2:1-4, who are not confined to Gentiles, were already included in 1:19-32.

However, these reasons are not persuasive:

  1. The passage is typical of the Jewish view of Gentile sin: creation points to the Creator (Rom 1:20; Wis 13:1, 5, 8) but foolish thought leads to idolatry (Rom 1:21-22; Wis 12:24; 13:1), the worship of idols (Rom 1:23, 25; Wis 13:10-14, 17; 14:8, 11-12, 21), sexual immorality (Rom 1:24, 26-27; Wis 14:12, 22-24), and wickedness (Rom 1:29-31; Wis 14:25-27).
  2. Ps 106:20 and Jer 2:11 are now applied to the Gentiles.
  3. The knowledge of God rejected by those depicted in 1:19-32 comes from natural revelation, whereas the knowledge of God comes to the Jew through special revelation (Rom 2:12-13, 17-29).
  4. The overt form of idolatry depicted was practically unknown among the Jews of Paul's day but was normal among the Gentiles.
  5. Jews consistently frowned upon homosexuality whereas homosexual relations were not uncommon in the pagan world.
  6. Jews condemned sin instead of approving it (1:32).

The strategy of Paul's argument is comparable to what we find in Amos 1-2. Paul attacked the Gentiles first, and while the Jews are saying "amen" he shockingly indicts them as well. The allusions to the idolatry of the Jews in Rom. 1:23 can be understood as foreshadowing chapter 2. In other words, 1:19-32 is directed against the Gentiles, but upon reading chapter 2 a Jew would begin to understand that they were not exempt from the charges pressed in chapter 1.25

The argument of 1:18-2:29 is best viewed as a series of concentric circles, proceeding from the general to the particular. Verse 18, the outermost circle, begins with a universal indictment: all people stand condemned under the wrath of God. It is the "heading" of 1:18-3:20 as a whole. Romans 1:19-32, likewise, includes in its scope all people, but it looks at them from the standpoint of their responsibility to God apart from special revelation. This qualification, even though not removing Jews in principle from the focus, means that Paul is not speaking directly about them. He is still speaking to them, however, since he uses this section to set up the indictment of the Jews that follows. The focus in 2:1-11 becomes more specific as Paul indicts the "moral person," but implicitly, as we will see, the Jew. Romans 2:17-29 finally targets Jews explicitly, accusing them on the basis of the clearest revelation of God available: the law of Moses.26

Natural Revelation

Natural revelation concerns what creation reveals about God. Special revelation concerns what God reveals about himself through his direct actions and words.

True knowledge of God can be learned from observing nature apart from God's special revelation (vv 19-21). Verse 18 says that people are suppressing the truth. For the argument in verses 19-28 to work, the people who suppress the truth must be the same people who have access to knowledge of God. Therefore, this passage is not speaking of a collective fall of humanity into idolatry in the past; it is speaking of an ongoing process in the present. However, this knowledge of God is limited to the basic attributes of God (v 20). Some knowledge of God stays with a person even after the person has fallen into a degenerate state (v 32).

C. Why man must be justified by faith: the guilt of the human race in general.

  1. (18a) The greatest peril facing the human race: the wrath of God.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven

  1. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven: The idea is simple but sobering - God's wrath is revealed from heaven against the human race, and the human race deserves the wrath of God.

  2. The wrath of God: We sometimes object to the idea of the wrath of God because we equate it with human anger, which is motivated by selfish personal reasons or by a desire for revenge. We must not forget that the wrath of God is completely righteous in character.

    1. "It is unnecessary, and it weakens the biblical concept of the wrath of God, to deprive it of its emotional and affective character... to construe God's wrath as simply in his purpose to punish sin or to secure the connection between sin and misery is to equate wrath with its effects and virtually eliminate wrath as a movement within the mind of God. Wrath is the holy revulsion of God's being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness." (Murrary)

    2. In Romans 1:16, Paul spoke of salvation - but what are we saved from? First and foremost we are saved from the wrath of God that we righteously deserve. "Unless there is something to be saved from, there is no point in talking about salvation." (Morris)

  3. The wrath of God: In this portion of the letter (Romans 1:18-3:20), Paul's goal is not to proclaim the good news, but to demonstrate the absolute necessity of the good news of salvation from God's righteous wrath.

    1. The wrath of God is not revealed in the gospel, but in the facts of human experience.

2. (18b-23) Why the human race is guilty before God: demonstrations of our ungodliness and unrighteousness.

Against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man; and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

  1. Ungodliness: This refers to man's offenses against God. Unrighteousness refers to the sins of man against man.

  2. Who suppress the truth in unrighteousness: Mankind does in fact suppress the truth of God. Every truth revealed to man by God has been fought against, disregarded, and deliberately obscured.

  3. His invisible attributes are clearly seen: God shows us something of His eternal power anddivine nature through creation, by the things that are made. He has given a general revelation that is obvious both in creation and within the mind and heart of man.

    1. Clearly seen: The universal character of this revelation and the clarity of it leave man without excuse for rejecting it. "Men cannot charge God with hiding himself from them and thus excuse their irreligion and their immorality." (Lenski)

  4. Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God: The problem is not that man did not know God, but that he did know Him - yet refused to glorify Him as God. Therefore, mankind is without excuse. Instead of glorifying God we transformed our idea of Him into forms and images more comfortable to our corrupt and darkened hearts.

    1. "Will you kindly notice, that, according to my text, knowledge is of no use if it does not lead to holy practice? 'They knew God.' It was no good to them to know God, for 'they glorified him not as God.' So my theological friend over there, who knows so much that he can split hairs over doctrines, it does not matter what you think, or what you know, unless it leads you to glorify God, and to be thankful." (Spurgeon)

    2. We can't seem to resist the temptation to create God into his own corrupt image, or even in an image beneath us. Tragically, we inescapably become like the God we serve.

    3. It is absolutely essential that we constantly compare our own conception of God against the reality of who God is as revealed in His Word. We can also be guilty of worshipping a self-made God.

    4. Image in Romans 1:23 is the ancient Greek word eikon. It is a dangerous thing to change the glory of the incorruptible God into an eikon (image) of your own choosing.

  5. Nor were thankful: Man's simple ingratitude against God is shocking. "I cannot say anything much worse of a man than that he is not thankful to those who have been his benefactors; and when you say that he is not thankful to God, you have said about the worst thing you can say of him." (Spurgeon)

    1. "But when you glorify God as God, and are thankful for everything - when you can take up a bit of bread and a cup of cold water, and say with the poor Puritan, 'What, all this, and Christ too?' - then are you happy, and you make others happy. A godly preacher, finding that all that there was for dinner was a potato and a herring, thanked God that he had ransacked sea and land to find food for his children. Such a sweet spirit breeds love to everybody, and makes a man go through the world cheerfully." (Spurgeon)

  6. Professing to be wise, they became fools: Our rejection of God's general revelation does not make us smarter or better. Instead, it makes mankind futile in their thoughts, and makes our foolish hearts darkened - and we become fools.
    1. The fact is once a man rejects the truth of God in Jesus, he will fall for anything foolish, and trust far more feeble and fanciful systems than what he rejects from God.
    2. This futility of thinking, darkening of the heart, and folly must be seen as one example of God's righteous wrath against those who reject what He reveals. Part of His judgment against us is allowing us to suffer the damage our sinful course leads to.

3. (24-32) The tragic result of human guilt before God.

Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

  1. Therefore God also gave them up: In His righteous wrath and judgment, God gives man up to the sin our evil hearts desire, allowing us to experience the self-destructive result of sin. This phrase is so important Paul repeats it three times in this passage.

    1. Hosea 4:17 expresses the judgmental aspect of God "giving us up," leaving us to our own sin: Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone.

    2. We make a mistake when we think that it is God's mercy or kindness that allows man to continue in sin. It is actually His wrath that allows us to go on destroying ourselves with sin.

  2. Who exchanged the truth of God for the lie: In every rebellion and disobedience against God we exchange the truth of God for the lie of our own choosing, and set the creature before the Creator.

    1. Paul uses the definite article - it is not a lie, but the lie. The lie is essentially idolatry - which puts us in the place of God. It is the lie you will be like God (Genesis 3:5).

  3. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions: Paul wrote this from the city of Corinth, where every sort of sexual immorality and ritualistic prostitution was practiced freely. The terminology of Romans 1:24 refers to this combination of sexual immorality and idolatrous worship.

    1. This begins a passage where Paul describes the sin and corruption of the pagan world with an amazing directness - so direct that Spurgeon thought this passage unfit for public reading. "This first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is a dreadful portion of the Word of God. I should hardly like to read it all through aloud; it is not intended to be so used. Read it at home, and be startled at the awful vices of the Gentile world." (Spurgeon)

  4. For even their women exchanged the natural use: Paul uses homosexuality - both in the female and the male expressions - as an example of God giving mankind over to uncleanness and lust.

    1. Some say that the Bible nowhere condemns lesbian homosexuality, but the likewise of Romans 1:27 makes it clear that the sin of homosexuality condemned in Romans 1:27 is connected to the sin of women mentioned in Romans 1:26.

    2. Paul doesn't even use the normal words for men and women here; he uses the words for male and female, using categories that describe sexuality outside of human terms, because the type of sexual sin he describes is outside of human dignity.

    3. Paul categorizes the whole section under the idea of vile passions - unhealthy, unholy. Nevertheless, Paul lived in a culture that openly approved of homosexuality. Paul didn't write this to a culture that agreed with him.

    4. Paul wrote to a culture where homosexuality was accepted as a part of life for both men and women. For some 200 years, the men who ruled the Roman Empire openly practiced homosexuality often with young boys.

    5. At times the Roman Empire specifically taxed approved homosexual prostitution and gave boy prostitutes a legal holiday. Legal marriage between same gender couples was recognized, and even some of the emperors married other men. At the very time Paul wrote, Nero was emperor. He took a boy named Sporus and had him castrated, then married him (with a full ceremony), brought him to the palace with a great procession, and made the boy his "wife." Later, Nero lived with another man, and Nero was the "wife."

    6. In modern culture, homosexual practice reflects the abandonment of giving them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. Statistics tell us that on average 43% of homosexuals say they have had 500 or more sexual partners in their lifetime, and only 1% of homosexuals say they have had four or less sexual partners in their lifetime.

    7. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 77% of homosexuals say they have met sexual partners in a city park; 62% in a homosexual bar, 61% in a theater, 31% in a public restroom. Only 28% of homosexuals said that they knew their partners for at least a week before participating in homosexual sex.

    8. Homosexuals often seem to specialize in anonymous sex with no emotional commitment. At one time, London AIDS clinics defined a woman as promiscuous if she had more than six partners in her lifetime. They gave up trying to apply a workable definition to male homosexuals when it became clear that they saw almost no homosexual men who had less than six sexual partners a year.

  5. Receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due: Paul speaks of a penalty for homosexual conduct; homosexuality has within itself a penalty. This speaks of the generally self-destructive nature of sin; it often carries within itself its own penalty.

    1. Sometimes it is the penalty of disease, which is the consequence of violating nature's order. Sometimes it is the penalty of rebellion, resulting in spiritual emptiness and all it's ramifications. In this sense the term "gay" is wishful thinking. It sends a message that there is something essentially happy and carefree about the homosexual lifestyle - which there is not.

  6. Again, this "freedom" to disobey should be seen as God's judgment, not His kindness; those who engage in such acts are receiving in themselves the penalty of their error.

  7. As further judgment, God gives man over to a debased mind, so that things that are disgraceful and sickening are readily accepted and approved.

    1. The word debased (or, reprobate in the KJV) originally meant "that which has not stood the test." It was used of coins that were below standard and therefore rejected. The idea is that since man did not "approve" to know God, they came to have an "unapproved" mind.

    2. "The human race put God to the test for the purpose of approving Him should He meet the specifications which it laid down for a God who would be to its liking, and finding that He did not meet those specifications, it refused to approve Him as the God to be worshipped, or have Him in its knowledge." (Wuest)

    3. A debased mind: Our rebellion against God is not only displayed in our actions, but in our thinking. We are genuinely "spiritually insane" in our rebellion against God.

  8. The list in Romans 1:29-31 gives concrete examples of the kind of things which are not fitting. Notice how "socially acceptable" sins (such as covetousness, envy and pride) are included right along with "socially unacceptable" sins (such as murder and being unloving).

    1. Covetousness: This word literally describes the itch for more.

    2. Whisperers: "Secret detractors; those who, under pretended secrecy, carry about accusations against their neighbours, whether true or false; blasting their reputation by clandestine tittle-tattle." (Clarke)

    3. Envy: Is this a small sin? Envy is so powerful that there is a sense in which it put Jesus on the cross. Pilate knew that they had handed Him over because of envy (Matthew 27:18).

    4. Proud: "They who are continually exalting themselves and depressing others; magnifying themselves at the expense of their neighbours; and wishing all men to receive their sayings as oracles." (Clarke)

  9. Those who either practice or approve of these things are worthy of death; they are the worthy targets of the wrath of God.

  10. Where does all this violence, immorality, cruelty and degradation come from? It happens when men abandon the true knowledge of God, and the state of society reflects God's judgment upon them for this.

Romans 1:18-32 - Commentary

OVERVIEW: n 1:18-32 is part of the larger section of material in 1:18-3:20 (cf. the teaching outline at the front of the book). The function of this material, as the for in 1:18 indicates, is to confirm that faith alone is the only means of attaining the righteousness offered in the gospel in 1:17.

This is so because all men are depraved and cannot earn God's salvation by their own works or merit. The point of 1:18-32 is to show that the Gentiles (primarily, though not exclusively) are guilty of sin and the point of 2:1-3:8 is to show that the Jews are equally guilty. Conclusion: all are guilty before God and all are shut up to faith as the means by which they can obtain God's salvation (3:19-20). This is the point Paul is making through the Habakkuk citation in 1:17.

This section, namely, 1:18-32, can be broken down into two smaller sections, 1:18-23 and 1:24-32. The first deals with the basis for the guilt of the Gentiles (and indeed all men by extension), the second with the consequences or results of that guilt.

1:18 With the introductory word for Paul tightly connects 1:18-32 (and 1:18-3:20) with 1:17: The section 1:18-3:20 will demonstrate the truth of 1:17, namely, that all men need the righteousness of God and that they can only obtain it through faith alone.

The wrath of God (ὀργὴ θεου`, orgē theou) refers not some irrational passion within the Godhead, but to his settled hatred for sin expressed or continually revealed (ἀποκαλύπτεται, apokalu"ptetai; cf. 1:17) in his giving people over to their sinful folly (vv. 24, 26, 28). History itself testifies to this process!

There is no reason, however, to necessarily assume that the "giving over" is permanent. There is ample biblical evidence to suggest that often times the goal of God's wrath is therapeutic (cf. Judges). In other words, God gives people over so that they will experience the ruin of their sin and call out to him for salvation. In the Gospels, it often seems that those who lived the worst kind of lives were the first to come to Christ (cf. John 4), while those who appeared to live moral lives were not interested in his offer of salvation.

God's wrath is directed at all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of people (πάσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων), that is, their sinful transgressions against God and their corrupted behavior exhibited within human relationships. In short, all of human life is polluted with sin.

Further, people suppress (κατεχόντων, katechontōn) or hinder the truth (ἀλήθεια, alētheia) by their unrighteousness (ἀδικία, adikia). Here "unrighteousness" is not so much a general reference to the way in which they suppress the truth, but a reference to the sinful acts themselves which are used to hold the truth from one's sight. Nothing could be more futile than to think that we can extinguish or destroy the truth through the means of sin. In the end, all we end up doing is confirming the truth.

But what truth do they suppress? Undoubtedly it refers to the truth about God, i.e., his power, authority, and the fact that we are accountable to him as Creator (1:19-20).

1:19-20 The word because (διότι, dioti) should be understood as explaining why God's wrath is leveled against all the ungodliness of men who suppress the truth by unrighteous acts. It is because what can be known about God has been plainly revealed to them so that they are without excuse when they deny to God his existence and divine nature. In other words, God has so created man and placed him within creation that for man to deny His existence, power, and divine nature is to commit a crime worthy of punishment, even death, as Paul says in 1:32. God's punishment is just, according to Paul, because such a denial requires the endless suppression of "mountains" of evidence to the contrary (cf. Ps 19). Such people must be living with a profound and irrational deception, to attempt to make this great exchange, that is, to attempt to deny the existence of God.

The phrase what can be known about God (τὸ γνωστὸν του` θεου`, to gnōston tou theou) is literally "the knowledge of God." It is obvious from the whole tenor of the passage that the knowledge here is personal, but not saving knowledge of God (cf. 1:21, 32). It is probably the knowledge that God has implanted in us, connected to the Imago Dei (perhaps conscience), and which is sparked or brought to memory through the evidence of creation. Once again, the suppression of this "knowledge" invites the wrath of God for it leaves man without excuse.

1:21-23 Verses 21-23 begin with for (γάρ, dioti) and give an explanation as to why men are without excuse. Even though people knew God in terms of his existence, power, and divine nature, they did not acknowledge him, nor did they give thanks to him or for him. Rather, having suppressed the knowledge of God, they have become futile in their thoughts (ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοι~ς διαλογισμοι~ς αὐτῶν, emataiōthēsan en tois dialogimois).

The term "futile" (the verb and especially the noun) is connected to idolatry in the Greek Old Testament (LXX; 2 Sam 7:15; Jer 2:5) and this is probably the background underlying Paul's thinking here. Therefore, to suppress the knowledge of God is to engage in the futility of idolatry. It is, in short, to give oneself to "nothing," a non-entity, since an idol is in reality "nothing."

The extent of their futility is clearly evident in that they exchange God himself for images of reptiles, four-footed animals, birds, and even human beings (v. 23). While idols can reduce the demand on a guilty conscience, they cannot save, as God repeatedly warns (Isa 41:9-10, 21-24; 44:6-23, etc.). Idolatry is the replacement of God, and true knowledge of him, with any other, de facto inferior, object of worship.

The ironic thing about all this is that people arrogantly annex for themselves the claim (φάσκοντες, phaskontes) of wisdom when they replace the worship of God who is immortal for the worship of his creation which is mortal.26 In reality they have become fools ( ἐμωράνθησαν, emōranthēsan [cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25]), lovers who will not stay at home, worshippers of something less than even themselves. Is it any wonder that Paul refers to their hearts as senseless (ἀσύνετος, asunetos) and darkened (ἐσκοτίσθη, eskotisthē) and Isaiah calls them deluded (44:20)?

In 1:18-23 we have seen the basis for God's wrath on the Gentiles and any other person who acts accordingly. In short, people suppress the obvious knowledge of God in creation-a fact which places them under his wrath. In 1:24-32 we will see how he has carried out his wrath against people who suppress his existence, power, and divine nature.

1:24-25 The expression God gave them (παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεός, paredōken autous ho theos) over means that the process envisioned in 1:18-32 is not simply the natural course of events but an ongoing history directed by a sovereign God who makes decisions which affect people, societies, and cultures. The thought is truly a frightful one. It is reminiscent of Pharaoh turning his back on God and in turn having his heart judicially hardened by YHWH (Exod 9:16; cf. Rom 9:17).

Though there is no mention of fire and brimstone at this point in Romans, there is a process underway that is not altogether distinct from hell. If people really want their sinful lifestyles, then the awesome reality is God will give them over to it. As C. S. Lewis as aptly remarked, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in hell chose it." The point is, that although Paul is not talking about hell here, and indeed there is still hope for these people, there is nonetheless a continuum between their present existence and their future plight. If a person really wants God out of their thoughts, as these people most definitely do, Love has decided to provide a place in the end where they can choose to go and never have to think about him again. 

There comes a time in the divine mind when people, who revel in the sinful desires of their hearts, are to be handed over to their desire for impurity, in particular, to the dishonoring (του` ἀτιμάζεσθαι) of their bodies with one another. One should not miss the ideological connection here between the Gentiles' idolatry and sexual sin-a connection which was commonly made in the Judaism of Paul's day.

Wisdom of Solomon 14:12-14 reads: 12For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life; 13 for they did not exist from the beginning, nor will they last forever. 14 For through human vanity they entered the world, and therefore their speedy end has been planned (NRSV).

Though there is no explicit grammatical tie with verse 24, verse 25 makes it clear that sexual perversion is closely linked with idolatry. People have exchanged (μετήλλαξαν, metēllaxan) the truth about God's existence and glory for the lie that he neither exists nor merits worship. Indeed, the irony of the whole thing is that they give religious worship and service to this lie (τ῅ ψεύδει, tō pseudei) when they give themselves to idolatry-the worship of the creation rather than the Creator. For idolatry is not just the worship of useless idols, it is the express proclamation that the biblical God does not exist. Such a thought is so abhorrent to Paul that he finds it necessary to invoke a blessing on God: "God is forever blessed!"

1:26-27 Paul repeats his refrain: God gave them over... to their dishonorable passions (πάθη ἀτιμίας, pathē atimias). God gave them over to go against the created order and design. The thought of such judgment is horrifying since the people are totally unaware of it.

And again, there is the centrality of sexual sin, though this time homosexuality, which was rampant and honored in Greco-Roman culture, is particularly singled out: their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones and likewise the men (αἵ τε γὰρ θήλειαι αὐτῶν μετήλλαξαν τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν, 27ὁμοίως τε καὶ οἱ ἄρσενες, hai te gar thēleiai autōn metēllaxan tēn phusikēn chrēsin eis tēn para phusin, homoiōs te kai hoi arsenes).

The concept of "exchanging" links verse 26 with verse 25 and verse 23 where the same idea is found. People could not stomach the truth about God so they sought to exchange it for a lie in order to accommodate their sinful desires and lifestyles. Note: The reason women are mentioned first is difficult to say for certain, though it is unlikely to have any connection to Genesis 3 and the fact that Eve sinned first. It may be that they are placed up front for emphasis, since Paul was more shocked that woman, the more modest of the sexes, should also engage in homosexuality. This, however, is simply conjecture.

The expression inflamed in their passions (ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν, exekauthēsan en tē orexei autōn) is a strong expression that once having left the proper course given in the created order, men "burned with intense desire" to be sexually involved with other men in shameless acts. One cannot help but think of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah who burned with passion to have sex with Lot's two guests (Genesis 19:1-11).27

But there are consequences for such perversion. Paul says they received in themselves the due penalty for their error (τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν ἣν ἔδει τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν ἐν ἑαυτοι`ς ἀπολαμβάνοντες, tēn antimisthian hēn edei tēs planēs autōn en heautois apolambanontes). God could not simply allow man to suppress the knowledge of him and attempt to replace it with idolatrous notions and sexual immorality. There must be punishment for such actions. The penalty, then, for such error or wandering from God, was to give men and women over increasingly to the experience of their own unsatisfying lusts. The experience of internal torment and futility which results is agonizing, and if repentance is not sought, the end is disastrous.

1:28 Continuing on, Paul says that just as people did not see fit to acknowledge God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do things that are not fitting. The expression to see fit to acknowledge God is literally "they did not approve to have God in [their] knowledge." The word approve (ἐδοκίμασαν, edokimasan) means "to test," "to examine," "to come to a conclusion based on evidence." And the idea of knowledge (ἐπιγνώσις, epignōsis) always means "moral or religious knowledge" in the NT. The point Paul is making, then, is this: Men and women tested the idea of God and having concluded that he would destroy their freedom (after all, he is the powerful Creator who has a legitimate claim on all his creation) made the conscious choice to dispel him from their thinking. But since we are instinctively religious we cannot go from God to nothing, for that would be impossible, but instead from God to idols. At least the latter makes no moral demands on one's conscience and life.

But guess what? People may have disapproved of God, but he has disapproved of them. Paul's play on words is rich. He says that God gave us over to a depraved mind (ἀδόκιμον νου`ν, adokimon noun), literally, an "unapproved" mind, in order to do things that are not fitting, i.e., things not in accord with the will of God expressed in the created order. Such is the divine response to rejection. We disapprove of God in our thoughts, so he gives us over to disapproved thinking!

1:29-31 Lists of moral vices were common in secular moral writings of Paul's day and even in the NT. Paul's list, however, has sufficient differences from Greek or even Jewish sources28 to show that he is not simply taking over uncritically the lists of other ethical systems. There is assonance among some members in the list which tends to support the thesis that the order is not that important.29

The list itself, however, can be broken down into three distinct, yet related sections. The first section begins with the graphic statement, they are filled (πεπληρωμένους, peplērōmenous) followed by four nouns describing that with which the people are filled. The use of the verb "filled" with the adjective "all" suggests that the condition of these people is deplorable and worthy of the most severe judgment. Indeed, it is, but we must remember that it is to these people that the offer of salvation in the gospel is extended: For all have sinned and are justified freely... (3:23-25).

The term unrighteousness (ἀδικίᾳ, adikia) is the same term Paul used twice in 1:18. The fact that it heads up the list of vices shows it's broad field of meaning and is probably intended by the apostle to remind the reader that the unrighteous condition of men is due to their suppression of the truth about God (1:18). The term wickedness (πονηρίᾳ, ponēria) means "baseness" or "maliciousness." Covetousness (πλεονεξίᾳ, pleonexia) means "avarice" or "greediness," i.e., never being satisfied with what one has. It is a direct indictment regarding God's ability to provide for his creation. The term malice (κακίᾳ, kakia) means "to have ill-will toward someone," "to be full of vice."

In the second section Paul continues by saying that people are rife, i.e., brimming with envy (φθόνου), murder (φόνου), strife (ἔριδος), deceit (δόλου), hostility (κακοηθείας, kakoētheias).

There are twelve nouns in the third section of the list. People are gossips (ψιθυριστὰς, psithuristas) who attempt to destroy others by undermining reputations. Similar to this is the idea of slander (καταλάλους, katalalous). It means to speak evil of someone. Further, they are haters of God (θεοστυγει~ς, theostugeis) as evidenced particularly in their suppression of the truth about his existence, their moral baseness, and their passion for idolatry. The term insolent (ὑβριστὰς, hubristas) may refer to more than impertinently insulting others of lower economic or social station in life, but can involve a measure of violence as well. The term arrogant (ὑπερηφάνους, huperēphanous) is used only in an unfavorable sense in Greek literature and refers to a haughty spirit, to the one who must always show (him)herself above others. The following term, boastful (ἀλαζόνας, alazonas) conjures up similar thoughts as well. These people go beyond the normal sins for they are contrivers of all sorts of evil (ἐφευρετὰς κακῶν, epheupetas kakōn). They are able to invent ways of doing evil against God and particularly against their neighbor. They are disobedient to their parents (γονευ~σιν ἀπειθει~ς, goneusin apeitheis)-once again balking the created order. They are senseless (ἀσυνέτους, asunetous), that is, without moral understanding in keeping with truth, justice, and due regret for the heinous nature of their abominable thoughts and acts. The Greek term for covenant-breakers (ἀσυνθέτους, asunthetous) is used in the Greek OT of those who are treacherous with regard to God's covenant. That is, they are unfaithful to him and to his covenant people (cf. Jer 3:7-13 LXX).30 Further, they are heartless (ἀστόργους, astorgous), i.e., having no natural affection for others even within their own family. They are also ruthless (ἀνελεήμονας, aneleēmonas), i.e., completely devoid of any mercy.

1:32 In conclusion, Paul says one more word of condemnation. He says that even though people know such moral vices are wrong, they not only practice them, but congratulate others who do so also. Paul is not saying that encouraging others to sin is necessarily worse than committing the sins themselves. Instead, he seems to be arguing that we are as equally bent on damning ourselves as we are on delivering other people to damnation (cf. Calvin). The knowledge Paul is referring to here is undoubtedly that to which he has already forcefully made reference in 1:19, 20, 21, and 28. People know via their conscience-which itself is sparked through God's creation-that such sinful behavior will result in ultimate punishment. But, says Paul, even though they know this firm decision of God, i.e., his immutable decree (δικαίωμα, dikaiōma) to punish sin, they continue in it nonetheless. The knowledge of this decree is not through the Mosaic Law-although that involves a particular instantiation of it-but rather through God's truth implanted in the conscience (cf. Rom 2:14-15). We must remember that the Gentiles were without the revelation of the law. Therefore, Paul must have in mind here the universal revelation in conscience and the imago dei. Such revelation is certainly enough to condemn, although it is not enough to save.