We sometimes think of the second half of the first chapter of Romans as a discourse about atheists. (And indeed, according to Romans 1 the answer to the question “Does God believe in atheists?” is “no.”)
But in reality, it’s a universal text that applies to all of us apart from Christ—what we are, what we do, and what we would do apart from God’s restraining and redeeming grace, with graphic examples to illustrate our truth-suppression and idolatrous identity.
Here’s an attempt to start to think through this sobering section of Romans.
What do all of us know?
(1) We know God himself.
(2) We know God’s decree.
(3) We know God’s judgment—that those who practice sinful things deserve death.
What is our responsibility?
We are without excuse.
How clear is the evidence for God’s knowability?
What can be known about God is plain.
Who showed us the evidence for God?
God himself has shown us what can be known about him.
What is it about God that every one of us knows?
We have clearly perceived God’s invisible attributes (= his eternal power and divine nature).
Where do we see God’s invisible attributes?
In the things that God has made.
What do we fail to do in response?
(1) We fail to honor God as God.
(2) We fail to give thanks to God.
(2) We fail to acknowledge God.
What do we do instead of honoring and thanking God?
We suppress the truth.
By our unrighteousness.
What do we claim about our thinking?
We claim to be wise.
What are we in reality?
We are fools.
What happened to our minds?
We became futile in our thinking.
What happened to our hearts?
Our foolish hearts were darkened.
What is the result?
We exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling
- mortal man
- creeping things
We exchanged the truth of God for a lie.
What did we do with created things?
(1) We worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.
(2) We served the creature rather than the Creator.
What is the result of this idolatry?
God gave us up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.
What kind of impurity?
The dishonoring of our bodies among ourselves.
How did we become entangled in dishonorable passions?
God gave us up to dishonorable passions.
Which dishonorable passions did women commit?
Women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.
Which dishonorable passions did men commit?
The men gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
What does God do to us for failing to acknowledge him?
God gave us up to a debased mind.
To do what?
To do what ought not to be done.
What are we filled with?
All manner of
We are full of
What are we?
- haters of God
- inventors of evil
- disobedient to parents
What do we know?
What is God’s decree?
Those who practice such sinful things deserve to die.
What do we do?
(1) We do these sinful things.
(2) We give approval to those who practice these sinful things.
What does God do in response?
God reveals his wrath from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
Is there any hope?
What is the gospel?
The power of God for salvation.
To everyone who believes—to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
What is revealed in the gospel?
The righteousness of God, from faith to faith.
As Habakkuk 2:4 says, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
For those who struggle to see why Paul would use homosexuality as his prime example of idolatry, I’d recommend this sermon from John Piper. Piper’s most profound insight here is that Paul sees a “dramatization” of Christ and the Church in Christ-centered heterosexual marriage, and that he also sees a dramatization of idolatry in same-sex sexual behavior, as men and women unite with images of themselves.
The reason Paul focuses on homosexuality in these verses is because it is the most vivid dramatization in life of the profoundest connection between the disordering of heart-worship and the disordering of our sexual lives. I’ll try to say it simply, though it is weighty beyond words.
We learn from Paul in Ephesians 5:31-32 that, from the beginning, manhood and womanhood existed to represent or dramatize God’s relation to his people and then Christ’s relation to his bride, the church. In this drama, the man represents God or Christ and is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. The woman represents God’s people or the church. And sexual union in the covenant of marriage represents pure, undefiled, intense heart-worship. That is, God means for the beauty of worship to be dramatized in the right ordering of our sexual lives.
But instead, we have exchanged the glory of God for images, especially of ourselves. The beauty of heart-worship has been destroyed. Therefore, in judgment, God decrees that this disordering of our relation to him be dramatized in the disordering of our sexual relations with each other. And since the right ordering of our relationship to God in heart-worship was dramatized by heterosexual union in the covenant of marriage, the disordering of our relationship to God is dramatized by the breakdown of that heterosexual union.
Homosexuality is the most vivid form of that breakdown. God and man in covenant worship are represented by male and female in covenant sexual union. Therefore, when man turns from God to images of himself, God hands us over to what we have chosen and dramatizes it by male and female turning to images of themselves for sexual union, namely their own sex. Homosexuality is the judgment of God dramatizing the exchange of the glory of God for images of ourselves. (See the parallel uses of “exchange” in verses 25 and 26.)
Piper’s follow-up sermon is also worth reading, especially as he gives counsel to those struggling with same-sex desire, as well as advice to parents.