The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on May 23, 2010.
The first chapter of Romans is not an easy chapter to read. While Paul is not ashamed of the good news (Romans 1.16), the news does not sound all that good at first: the wrath of God is revealed against all the wickedness and godlessness of mankind (Romans 1.18). Even though that statement should be get mankind’s attention, the apostle proceeds to give a detailed reason why God’s wrath is stirred against mankind.
For starters, God has made Himself plainly known through His creation. His very existence is obvious, and mankind can see that this God must have eternal power and a divine nature that is totally different than ours (see Romans 1.19-20). But when mankind looked at the heavens that reveal the glory of God (see Psalm 19.1), they were not impressed. They did not have a high opinion of God or praise Him or honor Him as God. They were not thankful to the Giver of every good and perfect gift (see James 1.17). Without the fear of God, or the awe of God, the very thinking of mankind became futile, empty, and vain. Though mankind thought they were wise in their earthly wisdom, they were incredibly foolish. The final straw was when mankind placed their affections on the beauty of created things instead of the beauty and greatness of the Creator. In fact, they preferred the beauty and greatness of morals to the beauty and greatness of the Immortal One. So, they created gods in their own images and worshiped and served them instead (see Romans 1.21-23).
What is a holy and sovereign God to do with all of this? Should the Ruler of the Universe pass judgment upon His very creation that rebelled against Him? Or, should the King of Kings be so filled with love and mercy that He graciously does whatever it takes to make His creatures happy and content? The book of Romans makes it very clear: those who suppress the truth about God are recipients of God’s wrath (see Romans 1.18).
But what does the wrath of God look like? Is it balls of fire falling from the heavens? Is it earthquake and tornadoes and natural disasters? Is it disease and pestilence and famine? The last words of Romans 1 describe the wrath of God, and prepare yourself: it will not be as you expect.
I usually read from the New International Version translation, but today, I would like to read from the New Revised Standard Version because I think this version very clearly states what the NIV would prefer to hint at. What does the wrath of God look like?
24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (Romans 1.24-32 NRSV)
The Immorality of Mankind
What gets the lion’s share of the focus of this text is the vivid, colorful, and almost “R rated” description of immorality, particularly in verses 26 and 27. While we live in a culture that is technologically advanced, that has the best form of government on the planet, that is the land of opportunity and freedom, particularly religious freedom, the freedom that Americans enjoy is by and large used to indulge in sin. However we got here, we live in a culture that has left behind any concept of morality as defined by the Scriptures. We have left behind this idea that right and wrong are codified in moral laws revealed by the Creator God, and we have moved into the realm of the “love ethic.” As long as your actions are motivated by love, then those actions are right. And anything that two people engage in is moral as long as both are consenting and the motive of both is love. It is a love ethic.
So it is no wonder why reading Romans 1 is such a shock to our system. In these paragraphs, we read some of the most startling words about morality in the entire New Testament. And right out of the gate, when Paul talks about morality and immorality, he immediately begins to talk about sexual immorality. For all of our advancements, first century Rome was not that much different than 21st century America. The sexual ethics of their culture, and our culture, have nothing to do with the moral code of the Creator.
Look at the world in which we live, and compare it to the moral code of the Creator. The Creator designed sexual intimacy to be experienced in the confines of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman. Compare that basic ethical code with our culture. In our culture, the link between sex and marriage has almost been completely divorced from each other. Sex before marriage and outside of marriage and without marriage is the new normal. The average age for the first sexual encounter for an American today is 16.9 years, which is just 3 months shy of the global average of 17 years. On average, the first sexual experience for mankind today will have nothing to do with marriage. Last year, 41% of all of the babies born in the United States were born to unmarried women. Watch movies and TV shows, and you will see that there is a complete separation between sex and marriage. The pornography industry continues to grow, and those who commit adultery through lust via pornography is an uncountable number (see Matthew 5.27-28).
It doesn’t take a social researcher to see the words of Romans 1 come to life in our culture: “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1.24-25).
And, of course, the acceptance of homosexuality as a moral alternative is almost complete in our culture, that there is nothing immoral about homosexuality. What is disturbing, though, is the number of so-called Christian churches and denominations who are joining the bandwagon of affirming homosexual behavior and approving those who practice it (see Romans 1.32). Just this week, the Episcopal church announced the ordination of their second practicing homosexual bishop, Canon Mary Douglass Glasspool.
The words of Romans 1 seem quite clear: “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1.26-27). And yet so many have come up with creative hermeneutical tricks to get around the plain meaning of the text.
Some insist that by “natural,” Paul is talking about the sexual ordination with which we are born. To go against that would be unnatural. So, what Paul is condemning here is a heterosexual engaging in homosexual behavior. But the word for natural is talking about the created order of things, not the innate preferences of one person.
Others will say that Paul is condemning the Roman practice of pederasty, which was a relationship between an adult male and a young boy, but Paul speaks clearly of “men committing indecent acts with other men” (Romans 1.27).
Some will try to say that Paul just didn’t know about the modern type of homosexuality where two men or two women could live in a committed, loving relationship. But this historical evidence is quite clear: homosexuality has been around for a long time. Not only was it addressed by the Mosaic law, Plato spoke against it, and even Rome had laws against it.
What Paul is saying here is quite clear, and yet we have replaced the idea of a moral code with the ethic of love. As long as what you are doing is motivated by love and mutual, whether it is two 17 year old high school students, or two married co-workers, or two same sex partners, as long as it is motivated by love, it is moral and ought to be approved by all.
The Real Shocker
But if we allow the shocking that describe immorality in vivid terms to consume our focus, we will be missing the big picture. Paul describes sexual immorality in detail, but he also lists at least nineteen other examples of “every kind of wickedness and evil” and “things that should not be done” in verses 28-30. We tend to get focused on just this one expression of immorality instead of being able to see the big picture.
Three times Paul writes that “God gave them over” as a consequence to their unbelief. God gave them over to sexual impurity because they did not have a high opinion of God, did not praise God, did not honor God, did not glorify Him as God, and did not give Him thanks (see Romans 1.21-24). God gave them over to shameful lusts (see Romans 1.26) because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator (see Romans 1.25-26). God gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done because they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (see Romans 1.28). God giving them over is His judgment upon their unbelief and rebellion.
The word translated “gave them over” or “gave them up” is a word that basically means “to give into the hands of another, to give over into one’s power, or to deliver one up to the custody of another.” What Paul is saying here is that because of their unbelief, because they refused to honor the Creator as God, because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, because they preferred to worship and serve created things rather than the Creator, because they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, God gave them over to the power and the custody of sexual immorality, shameful lusts, and to a depraved mind.
If you get that, then you will realize that that is the most shocking thing of this entire text. The description of immorality is not the shocking part. The shocking thing is that when mankind, both as a race of people and as individuals, does not honor God as God but exchanges the truth of God for a lie and worships and serves creation instead of the Creator and no longer sees fit to retain the knowledge of Him, God will hand mankind as a people and us as individuals over to the power and custody of sexual immorality, of shameful desires, and a depraved mind to do all sorts of things that are not right to do. What this means is that the immorality of mankind is not simply sin run amuck. The immorality of mankind is the judgment of God upon an unbelieving, idol worshipping humanity.
There are two ways to understand this concept. God is either passively giving mankind over, or He is actively giving mankind over. If the meaning here is passive, then God is allowing mankind to run unimpeded into the full effects of sin. Think of a boat tied to a dock upstream from Niagara Falls. By “giving mankind over,” God is untying the boat from the dock and letting the boat be carried downstream to the natural consequences, which is over the waterfall. This is the passive “giving over.”
But it is possible that the meaning here is not passive but active. God is not just allowing mankind to experience the consequences of their sin, but He is actively handing them over to the power of immorality, shameful lusts, and a depraved mind. You have to let that percolate a little bit. The immorality of mankind, the degrading passions, the greed and malice, the pride and arrogance, the strife and slander, and the senselessness and ruthlessness of mankind is not just God letting us do what we want to do and reaping the consequences of our sin. But it is His judgment upon us for our refusal to worship and serve Him alone. When we refuse to honor the Lord as God and worship created things instead of the Creator, His judgment upon us is to hand us over to the power of sin.
As we try to get a handle on that, let us also hear the words of Paul in the book of Ephesians where he wrote about the same matter and used some of the same concepts. He wrote,
17So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. (Ephesians 4.17-19 NIV)
In this paragraph, Paul uses some of the very same phrases. The thinking of the Gentiles was futile and their understanding was darkened (compare Romans 1.21). They were separated from God because of the ignorance that was in the due to the hardening of their hearts. Because they hardened their hearts, they became ignorant. Compare that to what Paul said in Romans 1.21, where their thinking became futile because they refused to glorify God as God.
But in Ephesians, Paul states the results differently. The same Paul who wrote Romans said in Ephesians that “they gave themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 1.19), and this is the very same word that Paul used three times in Romans 1. But in Romans 1, Paul said that God gave them over. So what gives?
The same question is often asked about the Exodus story. In the Exodus story, we are told about the hard heart of the Pharaoh, but it is unclear how the Pharaoh’s heart became hardened. God told Moses in chapter 4 that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (see Exodus 4.21, 9.12, 10.1, 10.20, 10.27), but as the story progresses, we are told several times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (see Exodus 8.15, 8.32, 9.34). After about half of the plagues, it is said that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but the other half says that God hardened his heart. Which one was it? Did Pharaoh harden his own heart or did God harden his heart? And the answer is both. By refusing to glorify the Lord as God, Pharaoh hardened his heart to the truth of God. As a judgment upon his unbelief and rebellion, God hardened his heart and gave him over to a depraved mind.
Back in Romans and Ephesians, when mankind refuses to honor the Lord as God, and chooses to worship creation instead of the Creator, and no longer thinks it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, the consequence of that is that God gives us over to what we want to give ourselves over to: sensuality (Ephesians 4.19), sexual impurity (Romans 1.24), shameful lusts (Romans 1.26), and a depraved mind (Romans 1.28). What mankind discovers once they have been given over to their sinful desires is that their sinful desires now have power over them. Paul is going to use very vivid imagery in Romans 6 as he talks about that we were slaves to sin (see Romans 6.19-23).
The mystery of Romans 1 and Ephesians 4 is that when we refuse to honor the Lord as God and worship and serve creation instead of the Creator, God hands us over to the power of what we really want, our shameful lusts, only to discover that we have become enslaved by the very thing we thought we wanted.
Why is Any of This Important?
All of this seems interesting enough, but is there any practical value to it? I like the definition that Michael Lawrence gives in his book, Biblical Theology, for theology. He defines theology as “applying truth to life,” kind of “water meets the wheel” kind of thing. Can we apply this truth to life?
A Cause For Thanksgiving For Our Own Salvation
The first value of knowing this truth is that is causes us to rejoice in our own salvation. This, the words of Romans 1.24-32, would be our story if not for the grace of God in our lives. If God had not reached out to us and rescued us and redeemed us, we have been given over to the power of sexual impurity, shameful desires, and a depraved mind to do all sorts of things that we not ought to do. When we realize that the god of this world had blinded our eyes so that we could not see the light of the glory of the gospel, and that we would have never seen it if God had not made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (see 2 Corinthians 4.4-6), and that we would still be doing the things that deserve death and applauding others who practice them (see Romans 1.32), it makes me say “Thank you God for rescuing me.” The way this applies to life is that it gives a new heartbeat to worship. It brings to life the words of the old hymn,
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I. (From Love Lifted Me)
He reached in there and pulled us out. If He had not pulled us out, look where we would still be. Romans 1 would be your life if He had not rescued you!
Do Not Resist God’s Call
Another way that this truth applies to life is to remind us that salvation is a miraculous, God authored event. We cannot save ourselves. Which means it is all the more vital that when God reaches out His hand to us as we are drowning in the sea of sin, that we grab hold of His hand and let Him rescue us. When God shines His light in our darkness (see 2 Corinthians 4.6), when he opens the eyes of our heart so that we can understand the gospel (see Acts 16.14), or when God draws us to His side (see John 6.44), it is imperative that at that moment we do not refuse Him.
You may think, “I am not that interested in that religious stuff right now but I might be later,” but not only are you not guaranteed a later, but you are not guaranteed another calling. This may be your last chance to hear His voice. After today, God may give you over to sexual impurity, to shameful desires, or to a depraved mind. After today, God may take away His hand and let you find what it is that you think you want. And when that happens, the only hope will be that God will call out to you as you are sinking deep in sin. But the question is, will your heart be so hardened that you will not hear His call? You are hearing it today, don’t refuse Him who is speaking to you right now (see Hebrews 12.25).
The Real Danger of Sin
One final way in which this truth can be applied to life is that it reminds us of the real danger to sin. What is the real danger of sexual immorality? Is it that you might get pregnant in high school? Is it that you might get a disease? Is it that you might gain a bad reputation? Is it that you might enter into a marriage with someone who you shouldn’t? Or is the real danger that God might give you over to your shameful desires? The danger of immorality is that God will let you have what you think you want. When you say to God, “I am not going to honor you as God in my sexuality, and I am going to trade your truth for the lie that this will make my life more enjoyable, and I am going to find more pleasure in created things than in the Creator,” the consequences of that are huge. I know the challenge of living a sexually pure life in high school and college today is enormous. If you follow Christ, you will be the oddball on campus, but look at what is at stake. What is at stake is not whether or not you will have a good time at the prom. What is at stake is whether or not you want to risk the consequences of not honoring God as God and exchanging the truth of God for a lie. What is at stake is that God may give you over to immorality and shameful desires. God may give you over to immorality, and you will spend the rest of your life doing the things that ought not to be done and experiencing spiritual death.
What is the real danger of greed? Is it that you might abandon your spouse as a workaholic and end up divorced? Is it that your children might hate you? Is it that you could end up a lonely, rich man? Is it that you may be tempted to break the law in the pursuit of more money? Or is the real danger that God may give you over in your idolatry to worship and serve money?
What is the real danger about being arrogant, boastful, or prideful? Is it that your friends might grow to despise you? Is it that you might make a major mistake and lose your job? Or is the real danger that God may give you over to your depraved mind that thinks more highly of yourself than you should?
What is the real danger of a spirit of strife, slander, or gossip? Is it that you might lose a few friends along the way? Is it that you might lose out on promotion opportunities at work because you don’t get along with others? Or is the real danger that God may give you over to a depraved mind so that you will continue to live a life of strife and bitterness and encourage others to do the same?
We think of the danger of sin as being the consequences of the behavior. The danger of lying is that you might get caught. The danger of stealing is that you might have to go to jail. The danger of pride is that you might end up embarrassing yourself in front of your peers. But what Romans 1 tells us is that the real danger of sin is that God may give us over to it, and the very sin that we think we are enjoying will actually begin to have power over us. And eventually, we will either not be able to get out of it or not even want to. It will have us.
The Value of Worship
There is such a movement today in churches to make church “relevant.” The music is supposed to be relevant, and the preaching is supposed to be relevant. But one of the reasons that worship is relevant is because the process of “God giving us over” begins when we refuse to honor the Lord as God in our lives (see Romans 1.21). Worship is a conscious act by which we honor the Lord as God. We talk about whether the music is good or whether the pastor preaches to felt needs or whether we have greeters in the parking lot. In so many ways, that misses the basic point of worship. Worship is where we recognize the Lord as God, where we confess that we worship and serve the Creator instead of His creation, where we embrace the truth of God and turn away from lies, where we say that it is important to us that we retain the knowledge of God in our lives.
I know that my preaching is not the best in the world; you can hear better sermons on the radio on the way to church. I know our choir can’t match the 200 voice choirs of the mega churches. I know our children’s ministry is not perfect, and our youth group has issues. But we can say that about every single church in the world. We come together on Sunday morning as sinners saved by grace to worship and recognize the Lord as our God. We come together to confess our sins when we have traded the truth of God for a lie this week. We come together because it is important to us to retain the knowledge of God. And this, what we call worship, is important and relevant in and of itself, because when we stop doing that, God will give us over.
(Dr. Todd Pylant is the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Benbrook in Fort Worth, Texas. If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Word of God Speak: Understanding the Bible, Hearing God’s Voice. Learn more about this book at Word of God Speak.)