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This is a paper I once wrote. It is about 1,700 words – a bit too long for a blog post. I considered breaking it into 2 parts, but this type of post will not interest some people, and those who are interested will read a longer post.

Introduction

Romans 1:18 through 3:20 paints a grim and dark picture of the sinfulness of humanity.  It addresses the depraved gentile world, judgmental moralizers, and self-confident Jews. In other words, everyone is guilty and cannot escape condemnation. Yet it is against this dark background that the gospel shines brightly, and this section is sandwiched between verses that emphasize the good news of salvation in Christ. This paper will focus specifically on the issue of sin in the gentile world as described in 1:18-32. These verses will be expounded upon and will reveal the core essence of sin, the inexcusable and ongoing nature of humanity’s sinfulness, the downward cycle of depravity, and an all-encompassing list of vices that leaves no one out.

 Romans 1:18-32

Paul’s starting point for the gospel is divine wrath, a topic which is not well received in our modern day. A wrathful God sounds antiquated and harsh to contemporary people. Yet God’s wrath is a scriptural attribute of God. Verse 18 states that God’s wrath is revealed against sin, specifically “ungodliness and unrighteousness (or wickedness) of men.” The Greek word for ungodliness is asebeian and means against God or a lack of proper reverence for God. Stott states in reference to this that “Scripture is quite clear that the essence of sin is godlessness.”[1] After mentioning ungodliness, the verse mentions the wickedness or unrighteousness of men. Failure to properly perceive and reverence God leads to a failure to treat people rightly, and a detailed vice list of humankind’s sinful behavior will come later in this section.

A subtle but significant observation regarding verse 18 is that God’s wrath is directed towards the ungodliness and wickedness, but not against people per se. God loves humanity (John 3:16) but cannot tolerate sin. While this paper’s focus is not on God’s wrath, a brief definition is helpful. God’s wrath does not mean God is angry or full of rage in a human sense. Stott defines God’s wrath as God’s “holy hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, his just judgment upon it.” [2] The opposite of wrath is not love, but neutrality. God cannot be neutral when it comes to sin. God is righteous and humanity is not. While this section is grim regarding the sinfulness of humanity, the verses immediately before and after it (1:17 and 3:21) refer to the righteousness of God being revealed to us in Christ and the hope that this offers.

It should also be noted that the present tense is used by Paul in verse 18, indicating that this sinful rebellion isn’t just a matter of the past but is ongoing. People today continue to suppress the truth and commit evil acts. The phrase “suppress the truth” is also revealing, indicating that they not only do wrong, but they know better. They have decided to live for themselves rather than God, and suppress any truth that would bring conviction.

Verses 19-20 refer to what is called “natural revelation” or the fact that evidence of God can be seen in creation and is accessible to everyone. Paul’s conclusion at the end of verse 20 is that humans are therefore without excuse. Witmer states that humanity’s “condemnation is based not on their rejecting Christ of whom they have not heard, but on their sinning against the light they have.” [3]

In this section, Paul gradually builds his case as one part builds on the preceding one. Despite natural revelation, humanity did not properly respond to it and did not glorify God as God (verse 21). This resulted in futile thinking, with the Greek word for futile being emataiothesan meaning worthless or purposelessness. Furthermore, their foolish hearts were darkened. Witmer notes that when truth is rejected, eventually the ability to recognize and receive truth is impaired. [4] A downward path can be clearly observed in these verses, ultimately resulting in idolatry (verse 23 and expanded upon in verse 25).

Barclay summarizes that “in this passage we are face to face with the fact that the essence of sin is to put self in the place of God.”[5] As previously referenced, Stott similarly said that the essence of sin is godlessness. When God does not receive proper acknowledgement and glory, this seems to naturally lead to self-centered futile thinking and God being replaced with idols of varying types. In the ancient world, idolatry may have involved nature worship or the making of literal wood or stone idols (verse 23 and 25). Our modern day western idolatry may be different, yet no better, as we may elevate things such as wealth, fame, or power.

Verses 24-25 continue with a “therefore” stating that God “gave them up” to their uncleanness, lusts, and dishonoring of their bodies. Stott states that “the history of the world confirms that idolatry tends to immorality. A false image of God leads to a false understanding of sex.”[6] The phrase “gave them up” is used three times in verses 24, 26, and 28. The Greek word is paredoken which means abandoned. This seems to reference the downward cycle of depravity. Sin begets sin. God abandons sinners to their willful self-centeredness, resulting in moral degeneration.

As we’ve seen from previous verses, humanity’s refusal to acknowledge and glorify God leads to futile thinking, a darkened heart, idolatry and immorality. Verse 27 also states that in committing shameful acts they receive in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. This also seems to relate to the concept of God abandoning them. God is not so much punishing them, but rather they eventually suffer the negative consequences which are the result of their own sinful behavior. While this can be seen as a judicial act of God, man is also responsible and has brought the judgment on himself.

Verses 26-27 expand upon sexual immorality, specifically lesbianism (verse 26) and homosexuality (verse 27).  Modern pro-gay theology states that these verses only refer to heterosexuals who involve themselves in same-sex sexual activity, as this is unnatural for them. If you are naturally attracted to the same sex, then it is not sinful behavior for you. This is a very strained interpretation of the text, as the text makes no differentiation between “true” and “false” homosexual behavior. The passage also uses strong language in regards to same-sex sexual activity such as vile, shameful, and against nature. Furthermore, when “men” and “women” are referred to in these verses, the Greek words used are arsenes and theleias. These words are specific biological or sexual words. Both words are rarely used in the New Testament, and when they do appear it is in verses emphasizing the gender of the subject. [7]  Joe Dallas summarizes regarding this passage in Romans “that homosexuality is biologically unnatural, not just unnatural to heterosexuals, but unnatural to anyone.” [8] Some pro-gay theology may also broadly state that any of Paul’s negative statements about homosexuality (here or in other epistles) is only referring to pederasty or promiscuous pagan temple sex. But again, Romans 1 indicates that homosexual behavior is unnatural, no matter who is involved or how it takes place. Neither does it correspond with wider Scripture principles on the complementary nature of man and woman.

Verse 28 reminds us that when God is not given his proper place (“did not like to retain God in their knowledge”) that God gives them over to a debased mind, and a debased mind leads to a variety of vices. This brings us to the “vice list” found in verses 29-31. Vice lists can also be found in other Pauline epistles, as well as in stoic and Jewish literature of that time.[9]  The Romans list has twenty-one vices and the list seems to defy any neat or overt classification. Detailing every vice would be beyond the scope of this paper, but some words are broad such as wickedness and evil mindedness, while others are more specific such as covetousness, pride, murder, and being unloving. It covers a wide variety of sin, and is not selective but inclusive or encompassing. Everyone should find they are guilty of something on it. If nothing else, pride gets us all! Pyne summarizes that “the apostle’s purpose…was not to highlight particular evils and single out certain persons for condemnation, but to reject summarily all kinds of evils and to include all persons in the need for salvation.”[10]

This blends with this entire section of Romans, as Paul continues in the next chapters (2 and 3) to indict moralizers and Jews as well. The encompassing nature of humanity’s sinfulness should also keep us from self-righteous judgment of others. In particular, homosexuality comes to mind. As previously covered, homosexuality is sinful yet each and every one of us are sinners in need of salvation.

Verse 32 brings the section to a conclusion regarding the many vices. It reminds us, as previous verses did, that the people know yet disregard their knowledge of God. Taking it a step further, verse 32 also indicates they encouraged others to sin by their approval of sinful behavior and this warrants God’s condemnation (“are worthy of death”) as will be made clear later in Romans (6:23).

Conclusion

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul has given us a terrible picture of what happens when humanity deliberately suppresses truth, and does not acknowledge and reverence God. The essence seems to be the difference between what people know and what people do. No one is innocent because no one can claim total ignorance. When humanity does not respond to the available light or evidence of God, it is a downward path into futile or debased thinking, sexual immorality, and sinful behavior of every type imaginable. Without bad news there cannot be good news, and this section is the backdrop for the good news of salvation found in Jesus Christ.

[1] John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 72.

[2] Stott, The Message of Romans, 72.

[3] John A. Witmer, “Romans” In Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, New Testament vol., 435-503 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 442.

[4] Ibid., 443.

[5] William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 28.

[6] Stott, The Message of Romans, 76.

[7] Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion, Confronting the “Gay Christian” Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, Publishers, 1996), 195.

[8] Ibid., 195.

[9] Stott, The Message of Romans, 79.

[10] Robert A. Pyne, Humanity & Sin (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999), 211.

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