After an encouraging, polite and pleasant introduction, Paul’s words take a sharp turn as he suddenly declares: “The wrath of God is being revealed…” (18). Romans sounds to me like a classic Daniel Band song, where the music starts out rather gently and then the drums kick in.
Paul’s premise from verse 17 is: “The righteous will live by faith”. He begins by explaining why the righteous need to live by faith. In fact, it’s the only way. Paul goes back, way back, to the creation of the world. Paul is painting a big picture here, so we need to step back to understand.
God has made it plain (18-19)
Paul began by saying God’s wrath is being revealed. Who is God so angry at? and why? Paul tells us that God is against all the godlessness and wickedness of liars, people who suppress the truth. God has spoken plainly, but people have covered up and hidden the plain truth about God. The invisible qualities of God, such as power and divinity, can be clearly seen in nature. We can see God’s nature in the anatomy of the human eye and the vast expanse of stars in galaxies. We can see God’s nature in the function of ant and the mighty power of an elephant. We can see God’s nature in the division of cells and the death of a star. God has made the truth about Him plain.
Inexcusable Irreverence And Ingratitude (20)
That’s how the prince of preachers, Spurgeon, titled Romans 1. Spurgeon’s words here are helpful: “Men who never heard the gospel can see God in his works if they open their eyes. There is written upon the face of nature enough to condemn men if they do not turn to God. There is a gospel of the sea, and of the heavens, of the stars, and of the sun; and if men will not read it, they are guilty, for they are wilfully ignorant of what they might know, and ought to know.”
Idolatry leads to a landslide of wickedness (21)
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Have you ever studied Exodus 20 and learned the Ten Commandments? What did God say before the commandments? God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2). Some numbering schemes of the Ten Commandments rightly include this in the first commandment. But the common scheme leaves this out. From God’s point of view in Romans, this appears to be the critical part of the whole list. In fact, that is what Jesus confirmed.
I often wonder what God wants from me. What do you want from me, O God?! That is often our cry. Paul says plainly that God wants first of all, for us to love Him as God and walk humbly with Him. God wants us to know Him, glorify Him as God and give thanks to Him. God can put up with a lot of crap, but He doesn’t put up with holding down the truth about Him.
Next Paul explains what happens when we make something into an idol, replacing God. God then gives people over to themselves. Paul shows us three dark exchanges and four levels of the landslide; a series of dark exchanges that leads to further degradation. When God is not in our heart, wickedness spirals out of control. How might we stem such wickedness? It begins with facing the truth about God in our heart.
First level – Sexual Impurity (22-24)
Exchange 1 – glory of God for images of man and nature
22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
Idolaters become fools, resulting in impurity in their hearts and degradation of their bodies. The first exchange is to swap the glory of God for images of man and nature. Do we do this? Most would say no, we don’t carve stone idols any more! But wait… we create millions of digital images. Our generation has exchanged the glory of God for brilliant, multi-million pixel images of men, women, and all things in nature, expressing all manners of sinful desires and sexual impurity.
Second level – Worshiping Created Things (25)
Exchange 2 – truth of God for a lie
25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
The first exchange quickly leads to a second dark exchange. We start to believe lies about God. We start to wonder, “Did God really say…?” Our hearts become fixated on created things rather than the Creator. We love the blessings of God more than God who is the source of blessing. We begin to crave our own safety and start protecting our stuff. We put ourselves on the throne of our life, sacrificing and working hard, not for God or His glory, but for our own.
Third level – Shameful Lusts (26-27)
Exchange 3 – natural relations for unnatural
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
What is this third exchange? A plain reading of these verses is the natural law argument: Idolaters exchange natural (heterosexual) relations for unnatural (homosexual) relations. In these verses, unlike in other verses, Paul clearly uses the common Greek word for homosexuality.
The plain teaching here is that it is shameful for a heterosexual man or women to suddenly choose to explore homosexual activity. The text plainly says these people chose to abandon natural relations and chose to commit indecent acts. They could make such choices because they already made the first two exchanges.
It is also clear here that promiscuity of any kind is shameful and a perversion, since all the activity listed here in Romans 1 of a sexual nature is occurring outside a monogamous marriage relationship.
What about LGBT?
Although the text here does not warrant a distracting discussion on all the LGBT issues, I will say a few words because this passage has been taken out of context and used to slam the LGBT community unfairly in our generation, and in a way that has not been experienced in ancient generations.
Restraint and Caution
These verses ought to be taught plainly and boldly to restrain those who would casually experiment with homosexual activity. Choosing to do so is clearly sinful in God’s mind. But what do these verses say to someone who is born with a homosexual orientation? What value do these verses have in the same-sex marriage debate of our generation? The only value I see in such things is that these verses serve as a constraint and a warning. We all should be cautious and patient when addressing homosexuality, and not be quick to judge or condemn (which by the way is Paul’s point in Romans 2…)
The Christian Church cannot just throw off all restraint and celebrate homosexual activity. I hope (and think) many in the LGBT community would understand that. At the same time, the Christian Church must remain “Christ-like” even in dealing with the LGBT community. I would say especially when dealing with the LGBT community. To quote Romans 1 and say that all homosexuality we see in our generation is the result of the dark exchanges in this passage is not being truthful to the text and is not showing the love of God for people; people He created. And on a basic level, to say that Romans 1 is God’s condemnation for homosexual people is simply wrong. I question the faith of anyone who does so.
Fourth level – Every kind of wickedness (28-32)
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Idolaters did not retain the knowledge of God (Scripture, Spirit teaching, dialogue with fellow Christians, etc), resulting in every kind of wickedness. All the exchanges lead to a landslide of wickedness.
Reversing the Exchange
The text in Romans 1 doesn’t say how to reverse, slow down or change the exchanges that people make. Perhaps we could set our eyes on the glory of God, seeing His beauty, His majesty, His joy, His peace, His love and His grace. Perhaps we need to experience the furious love of God who says to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” (Job 1:12) Perhaps we should study the truth of God, reading what God actually did and did not say, learning what God did and did not do, and listening to the voice of God.
However, before we jump into how to prevent this landslide of wickedness (if that were even possible?), I suggest we “keep reading”. Paul presents God’s amazing solution to these problems, so we shouldn’t stop the ride just yet. Instead, I think we should ponder what is going on, understand the process and ultimately accept that the exchanges in Romans have happened and will continue to happen.
Who is “they”?
In chapter 1, Paul doesn’t take a breathe to conclude anything. So we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions just yet. Paul keeps right on going to chapter 2. Before we start making all kinds of applications or going off on a rabid inquisition to purge our church or society from wicked people, I suggest we turn the page in our Bibles and read Romans 2:1-4, and realize that the “they” in chapter 1 is the “you” in chapter 2.