Sunday Evening Bible Study – Romans 1:26-32

16 Apr

Romans 1:26-32
The Description of Mankind’s Need for Salvation, Part Two

It’s good to be back together after a two week hiatus. Tonight we’re planning to finish up chapter one and look at the second part of The Description of Mankind’s Need for Salvation.
We saw last time, in verses 18-25, that the wrath of God was being revealed from heaven against those who failed to truly worship God the Creator. Though they knew He is real, they turned away from Him and worshiped what He has made instead. In their idolatrous hearts they suppressed the truth they knew about God from the created world and served themselves instead. A turn away from God leads to a turn away from God’s standards, so that wickedness is ever-increasing and righteousness is suppressed. And we found in the end that God gave them over to their desires. They did not want Him, so He gave them over to their idolatry. This led to dishonoring of their bodies among themselves through their lusts. The immorality of the world then is not owing to our simply having broken God’s rules. It is instead linked profoundly to false worship . . . We treasure what God has made but we do not treasure God Himself.  And this brings down God’s condemnation. Tonight’s passage is the continuation of the description Paul began in verse 18. In verses 26-32, Paul will go on to describe more of the results of our idolatrous hearts. So let’s look together at it tonight. This passage will both fascinate us and repulse us, because on the one hand it is so contemporary and relevant to our culture but on the other hand its descriptions of human wickedness are so devastating.
So let’s look at verse 26 . . .

26  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;
We need to look first at the phrase “for this reason.” The phrase in itself is not that significant but it is important to understand what it is looking back to? “For this reason” . . . Look up at verses 24 and 25, 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.  So in verse 24 God gave them up in their lusts because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. And then we get verse 26 and “For this reason.” It is the same reason, a turning away from God and a turning to self and sin and idolatry. So there is a second giving them up on the part of God, this time to dishonorable passions.
The fact that there are dishonorable passions must mean that there are honorable passions. The problem is not passion, the problem is dishonorable passions.  What are the dishonorable passions? They are described in the rest of verse 26 and in verse 27. 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. So the dishonorable passions God gave them over to were homosexual relations, women to women and men to men. We see in these two verses five characteristics about these homosexuality which we will need to talk about in detail. First, homosexuality is the result of an exchange. Second, homosexuality is contrary to nature. Third, homosexuality is consuming. Fourth, homosexuality is shameless. Fifth, homosexuality has an internal penalty. So let’s look at all five of these truths about the dishonorable passions of homosexuality in some detail.
First, it is an exchange. On one level this seems to imply intention on the part of the one involved in the activity. In other words, there does seem to be some element of willful turning away from one path to take another. An idolatrous person may be blinded to that but it is still going on, they are choosing things over God and in so doing they go down the path of choosing sin over righteousness. So there is an exchange of the good for the evil. This means that homosexuality can not be thought of as a merely genetic issue. There may or may not be genetic markers for homosexuality, the evidence on that to me seems unclear. But even if there are, the argument can not be made that homosexuality is an entirely genetic matter. To say, “I was born this way” does not square with the biblical teaching here in Romans 1. To walk in this path is to walk in disobedience to God and therefore is an exchange of the good for the sinful.
Second, homosexuality is contrary to nature. The exchange is natural relations for that which is contrary to nature. Natural relations then are male-female relations while unnatural relations are same-sex relations. And remember when we are talking about what is natural we are talking about what is from God, for He is the Creator. So we are talking about what is according to God’s design. And we know from other Bible passages that the place where natural relations are to take place is within marriage. So heterosexual lust and sexual immorality is sin but homosexual lust and sexual immorality is sin which violates even the design God has made. Therefore it is the perfect illustration of the distortion and disorder that happens when we choose creature over creator. Paul highlights homosexuality here because it is so obvious a departure from design, whereas other areas of idolatry and sin may be less obvious. That the departure from design is not obvious to many in our culture just shows us how far down the path of idolatry we have walked.
Now to the Jew, homosexual behavior was repugnant. It was an abomination, as the book of Leviticus says. But to Gentile cultures of Paul’s day, homosexuality was more acceptable and among some, particularly the cultural elite, it was celebrated. There is good evidence that several of the Roman Emperor’s including Nero engaged in homosexual behavior. But Paul’s point in these verses is not to point to the disapproval of the Jews or the approval of the Gentiles. His point is to say that this is not what we are made for and it is a sign that the world in general is not where it should be. He says nothing about whether people in same-sex relationships can feel love or whether they can feel happy. He is just saying that people have made lust their god and have followed it wherever it leads and this is a sign that the world has ignored God’s truth. As one commentator says, “The sexual drive itself is wholesome and good. It is God’s way of providing both pleasure and progeny. When directed toward a person of the same sex, it abandons its God-given purpose and becomes a degrading passion.”
Not only is homosexuality an exchange that is contrary to nature it is also consuming. Those who are involved in it are consumed by it according to Paul here. And I believe the consuming nature of this life is connected to it being contrary to nature. You must work really hard at going against God’s design. If you wanted to live underwater you would have to radically alter your life and build things for yourself to survive underwater and your whole identity would get wrapped up in living underwater. I think this is why those who are homosexual so often wrap up their whole identity in their sexuality. Whether they are in the closet or out makes no difference, for them their sexuality is consuming. Why? Because they have made it an idol and because it goes against God’s design it is a fight to maintain. It takes the whole self, like any other god, it demands all of us. Homosexuality is consuming.
Fourth, homosexuality is shameless. Within it, people are committing shameless acts with others of the same sex. To step out of God’s design and to be consumed with a lifestyle of homosexuality will lead to shameless acts. We hate words about shame in our culture because we think freedom is the throwing off of all constraint rather than a blessing from God to be used for His glory and the good of others. Shame means there is an authority before whom we might be ashamed. The concept of shame hits us where it hurts, it takes us of the throne and puts God on the throne. So we hate it. There is a kind of misplaced shame, but shame also has its proper place and we would do well to not ignore it. A person without shame over their obviously sinful behavior is a person with a hardened heart.
Finally, homosexuality carries with it an internal penalty. I believe that penalty is not primarily AIDS or some other physical or emotional problem, I believe it is the sinful activity itself which results in a hardened heart toward God. A hardened heart toward God is worse than any disease. John Piper says, “The sexual disordering of our lives, most vividly seen in homosexuality (though not only there), is the judgment of God upon the human race because we have exchanged the glory of God for other things. Sometimes people ask, “Is AIDS the judgment of God on homosexuality?” The answer from this text is: homosexuality itself is a judgment on the human race, because we have exchanged the glory of God for the creature – and so is AIDS and cancer and arthritis and Alzheimer’s and every other disease and every other futility and misery in the world, including death.     For years many in our culture have said that homosexuality is one of many legitimate lifestyle choices. In the last few years even many professing Christians have urged us that the Bible doesn’t teach that homosexuality is wrong. But these verses clearly show that homosexuality is sinful. We need to understand that if we hold to this biblical teaching we are going to be more and more ostracized in our culture. Look what happened to Kirk Cameron recently when he was interviewed on CNN. When he said almost exactly what Romans 1 says about homosexuality, he was lambasted and criticized as being narrow and arrogant and unloving. And that is what you will face too if you speak biblically about this issue in public. But it is crystal clear that Paul in 1 Co. 6:9 says that practicing homosexuals, along with sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will not enter the kingdom of God. So we must speak the truth in love.
But the good news is in that same passage, in verse 11, Paul went on to say, “So were some of you; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Co 6:11). So my dream for this issue is that we as believers would be firm in the biblical truth that homosexuality is disordered and sinful but even more firm in offering God’s love and forgiveness to our fellow idolatrous human beings. Our calling is not to treat homosexuals with hatred and over and over point out their sin as if we are glad they are so bad and we are so good. We will find in just a few verses from now in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We should pray for all who are in the grip of idolatry all the while keeping watch on our own hearts, which, as Calvin said, are idol making factories. Prayer, compassion and the power of the gospel will do more than boycotts and political campaigns and condemnation. God’s Spirit working through His Word will bring that good kind of condemnation that leads to repentance.

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.
The key phrase in verse 28 is “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God.” How do we know they didn’t see fit to acknowledge God? They suppressed the truth they knew about Him by acting in ways that were contrary to His design. Its kind of like a vicious cycle. People give themselves up to idolatry and God gives them the thing they worship. But being consumed with that thing leads ultimately to disorder and despair and a debased mind and death. Why? Because nothing other than God is ever big enough to receive our worship and to sustain our life. Now don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t happen right away. There are many, many blissfully happy idolaters out there, for now. What I am saying though is that the day will come when the joy of that idolatry is gone and every day is a day when their bliss is not complete. The most easy way to see this is by looking at our gadgets. The technological gadgets of our day can be tremendous blessings or terrible time wasters. But most of all they can easily become idols. But have you ever noticed what happens? Our idolatry of a certain object only lasts as long as it is fresh or new. When it is no longer new we can actually begin to loathe it. For example, if you bought a flat screen TV when they first came out, you really thought you were something. You might say, “Yeah I bought a 32 inch 720p HDTV and its great.” And everybody marveled at your $800 TV. But then what happened? A couple of years passed and you began to see in the Sunday papers 48 inch 1080i HDTVs for $700! Now what do you begin to think of your little 32 inch TV that you were so in love with two years ago? What a piece of junk! I need to go get a new TV. And so you do. And for a while you’re satisfied. Until the next big thing comes out. When we are idolatrous, there is in us this constant thirst that can never be satisfied. And the way God punishes that evil is to let us experience that let down over and over, to let us live with the illusion of freedom while all the while we become more enslaved to the things we worship. I am reminded of Jeremiah 2:12-13, when God spoke to the prophet and said, 12  Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 13  for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. This is such a powerful image. There is a fountain of living waters, God Himself. He is our source of life and strength and wholeness. And in our fallenness we prefer to dig holes in the dirt and hope for rain to fill them up so we can drink a little dirty water of our own making. We forget we didn’t make the rain, but we’re so very proud of our little cisterns. We move more and more toward evil the more and more we assert our independence from God. This is why I fear for our culture. It’s not because of specific evils like abortion or racism or murder, it’s because of what the prevalence of such things tell us about how far we have wandered from God. Paul tells us where such debased living leads in verses 29-31 . . .

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.
Does your heart acknowledge God and does your mind dwell on Him, or is your heart and mind set on idolatry? Idolatrous hearts and minds become characterized by the rotten fruit of sin while Godward hearts and minds become characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. The Jewish rabbis would say that in every human heart is a black dog and a white dog. The one who is fed the most becomes the largest. Paul will say things like that in Romans, “The mind set on the flesh is death, the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” So the rabbis were onto something.
As to the list itself, it is very hard to organize or categorize. Some of the sins listed are pretty specific, while others are more general. As I look at the list, the first four words are all connected to grammatically to the phrase “filled with all.” They serve as kind of a general description of a debased mind. Then I think the list moves into more specific ways that these things (unrighteousness, evil, covetousness and malice) are manifested. It all starts very generally, “with all manner of unrighteousness.” This is what comes with a debased, God-belittling, idol-honoring mind. Evil is the wickedness of humanity that sets itself in opposition to God’s commands. To do evil is to intentionally not do what God wants you to do. Then there is covetousness, which is both a godward and manward area of sin. The one who covets makes something other than God into a god, thus turning away from God. And the one who covets usually wants something someone else has, thus alienating himself from his fellow man as well. Malice is directed more toward others. It is an ill-will toward others born of a desire to preserve self. You can be sure that a mean person is a self-centered person.
With that the list seems to get more specific. They are full of envy.  Leon Morris wisely points out in his commentary that the presence of envy among the enemies of God “reminds us that evildoers are not just one happy band of brothers.” We often get that idea that people in sinful lifestyles just have it great and things go well for them, but it is an illusion.  Murder, It is interesting that murder is put right after covetousness and envy, since so much murder is based on these other sins. In the Greek text there is only a one letter difference between the word Paul uses for envy and the word he uses for murder. Strife too is murder’s cousin, less immediate in its effect but destructive nonetheless. From here there seems to be a turn to matters of speech and action. Deceit, The devil is the father of lies so it is no surprise that his followers would be inclined to deceive. When it comes to maliciousness, since malice has already been mentioned, I think  maliciousness here is just the outward expression of the inward reality of malice mentioned earlier. In other words, not only do I have hateful thoughts and feelings toward you, I will now begin to act on those thoughts and feelings. They are gossips and  slanderers. These are obviously closely related, having to do with speech. The difference between the two is well expressed by CEB Cranfield in his commentary on Romans. He writes, “The difference between gossip and slander is that the former denoted specifically one who whispers his slanders in his listener’s ear, whereas the latter means a slanderer quite generally, irrespective of whether he whispers his calumnies or proclaims them from the housetops– though the fact that it is used immediately after gossip makes it natural to understand it to refer here in particular to the more open sort of slanderer. The gossip is, of course, the more vicious and dangerous kind, inasmuch as he is the one against whom there is virtually no human defense.”
Haters of God, in some ways points to the core problem of the wicked, but here it seems to denote a kind of out in the open hatred, the kind you see on the comment thread of a news site or in the public square among those who are against Christianity.
The word Insolent is closely connected to a Greek word for pride. Again Cranfield is helpful here where he says, “It is best understood here as signifying the man who, in his confidence in his own superior power, wealth, social status, physical strength, intellectual or other ability, treats his fellow men with insolent contemptuousness and thereby affronts the majesty of God.”
Haughty and boastful seem to go together. One is a description of the way a person carries themselves, in a prideful manner. The other is a description of how one manifests that pride publicly. In other words, there are some people who are dripping with pride without saying a word and others who are ready to express their pride at every turn.
Inventors of evil means that while the fundamental reality of sin in the world does not change, the capacity of evil mankind to continue to develop new ways to express evil continues. We all know this is true if we just turn on the news or observe history in the last 100 years or so.
Disobedient to parents. Honoring one’s parents is such an important biblical principle that it was one of the Ten Commandments. So to turn away from the ten commandments, those fundamental laws of God, is not surprising for one who has suppressed the truth in unrighteousness.
I take foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless as a four-fold description and kind of a summary of the evil person. It is kind of the final seal of wickedness like nothing more needs to be said.
So that is the description Paul gives of the wicked, the God-hating, truth-suppressing one who is in rebellion against God. But if you’re thinking you may be running into a problem here. You may think, I know plenty of people who don’t know Jesus who are nice people. Maybe you’re thinking Paul was a little bit over the top here. I think it is important to keep in mind Paul’s purposes here. First, Paul is trying to establish that all people are under God’s wrath apart from Christ. They need righteousness and Paul is trying to show us that they don’t have righteousness. Second, Paul is not saying that everyone is equally sinful or that everyone is guilty of every sin in his list. His list is a representative list, a thing very commonly used by ancient writers. If you read the Bible you will see at several points lists of virtues and lists of vices. He is doing all of this to show us our need of Christ. So it is crucial that we keep this in mind as we study chapters 1:18-3:20, because isolated from the rest of Romans it can be depressing. But without it, the good news in Romans is far less glorious and much less understandable. So the truth of man’s sinfulness is an all-important truth but it is not the whole story. This is why churches need to preach the whole counsel of God. A emphasis only on sin and judgment or an emphasis only on grace will lead in both cases to a walking away from the truth and the teaching of a misshapen gospel which is really no gospel at all.  Everett Harrison sums up the issue well, “Sinful man is capable of committing all [the offenses mentioned], but not every individual is necessarily guilty of every one.” So we don’t want to assign this full list to every single person but we also don’t want to pretend that people who do not know God are free from these kinds of things.
Now let’s move to the final verse, where we see one more devastating indictment of the wicked . . .

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.
There is a critical statement right at the beginning of this verse: They know God’s decree. Though the wicked have suppressed the truth, in their heart of hearts, as much as they want to push it down, they know that the kinds of sinful things that their hearts pursue lead to death. NT Wright says, “The ‘decrees’ of God are built into the fabric of creation itself. Evil behavior is inherently destructive. It points, like a signpost, towards death. This is obvious in the case of murder and other violence; it should be almost as obvious in the case of gossip and slander, where someone’s reputation and life are pulled to pieces, often without any chance of redress. People who are self-important and boastful are effectively pushing themselves into space belonging to others, as though the others shouldn’t really exist. And so on. God has made the world in such a way that kindness, gentleness, generosity, humility—love in all its many forms—is life-giving, while evil in its many forms is deadly. The steady process of corruption which Paul chronicles in the repeated ‘God gave them up’ of verses 24, 26 and 28 is not itself ultimate death. That, as the final condemnation of sin, is spoken of in the next chapter. What we see in Romans 1 is the chilling sight of future death casting its dark shadow forwards into the present. If we recognize even part of the picture, we ought to be all the more eager to see what kind of a solution Paul is going to propose as the letter moves forwards.”
But the final terrible truth of this verse is that though they know that this sinful wickedness leads to death, they not only continue in it, they applaud others who are on the same deadly path as well. This is what hardness of heart does, it moves us in time to actually delight in our sin and the sin of others.
And here’s the thing: Paul was speaking about this from personal experience. Paul, the zealous Pharisee, had stood by giving approval to the sinful course of his fellow men as the stoned Stephen for preaching the truth. Acts 8:1 makes it very clear that he stood by giving his approval of their wickedness. And at that point a great persecution broke out and Paul participated in it until his conversion. Giving this kind of approval to sin, in other words, produces an environment where sinful behavior can thrive. But not only that, giving this approval to sin is the surest sign that your heart is captured by sin. All of us sin, but one of the things that separates a God-fearing person from a God-hating person is hatred of sin. A God-fearer hates her sin, while a God-hater loves her sin and sin in general. When there is a constant bucking against God’s authority and decrees and a great delight in seeing that authority resisted, you can be sure you have someone who is in the grip of hard-hearted resistance to God. Someone just like we’ve met in Romans 1:18-32.

Paul concludes this section by saying those who sin and approve others who do are guilty and deserving of the wrath of God. But what about those who do not approve of the sin of others, those who make moral judgments about the sins they see around them? Are they also deserving of the wrath of God? That’s what Paul is going to begin to address in chapter 2 and we will turn there next week.
I think I can best sum up today’s passage with a really good quote I heard recently, “Evil is what you get when the mind is twisted out of shape and the body goes along for the ride.” In other words, our struggles with sin are not primarily biological but are matters of where our hearts and minds are fixed. The deepest problem of our lives is failed worship. Failure of right worship of God is behind all the problems of the world and it should be our highest priority to address this failure with the gospel for it is only then that all our disordered ways will begin to be repaired and our lives will begin to be restored.

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