Last week we began our descent in Paul’s first large section of his letter to the Romans, looking at 1:18-21. There we saw that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven. Why? Because His truth, truth about His eternal power and divine nature which is clearly seen in all creation is being suppressed. Who’s suppressing God’s truth? Mankind is, in ungodliness and unrighteous. Mankind in total? No, only men and women who know God yet refuses to honor God as God or give thanks to God. For this rebellion and unbelief there is no excuse, and in response to it God’s not only revealed His wrath, but He’s made foolish the minds, and darkened the hearts of those who rebel. This is the condition of lost man in the world, yesterday, today, and forever.

Now that’s where we’ve been, in v18-21, and today as we keep on today in v21-32, we’ll keep descending into the depravity of the human condition.

The Beginning Claim (v21-22)

“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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…”

We start again today with v21, where we ended last week to show how all of this is connected. Here in v21 Paul concludes one thought and transitions into another. He wraps up the reality of General Revelation and what it leads to. That while God truly reveals Himself through creation man eagerly rejects Him. For this, as we’ve seen, man becomes foolish in mind and darkened in heart. Question: what does man then do in this foolish and darkened state? v22 picks this up and expands it with just a phrase. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” This is a contrast between what people perceive themselves to be and what they truly are, between illusion and reality.[1] And it’s sad what lost man sees in the mirror. Tracking from v18 to right here in v22, can you see this sadness? Man refusing to honor God as God, man rejecting the God who’s clearly and plainly revealed throughout creation, and by doing so man claims to have reached a higher sophistication and progress, to have attained a new level of wisdom unprecedented in all of history. It’s as if modern man stands up and proclaims, ‘For ages and ages peoples have bowed down to a god they believed to rule over them and all things. In the name of this god sacrifices were made, wars were waged, and lives were restricted according some divine rule. No longer with us! We have rejected archaic belief of religion. We have progressed beyond the Neanderthal notion of seeking to appease an angry god. We are wise.’ Is this not what our world does today? They look at us, they hear our beliefs, and they conclude we are the fools while they are the ones in whom true wisdom is found.

This claim to have true wisdom begins our passage in v22, but let’s examine that claim. Paul says they claim this but they’re fools, is he right? Or perhaps we can ask that question like this: man claims to be wise but in such ‘wisdom’ what does man do? That leads to where Paul goes next in v23-31…

Sad Exchanges (v23-31)

We see the first sad exchange right away as v22 ends and v23 begins. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Even though man claims to be wise by rejecting the God revealed in creation and all things religious, do you see how religious man remains? Perhaps you’ve known someone who suffers from OCD and are familiar with the unending compulsive thoughts that can dominate the mind. Well, this text shows us that mankind, ever since the fall, suffers from OCW, we are obsessive compulsive worshipers. See it here. This first sad exchange in our text is not man leaving worship behind and embracing wisdom, no. When one refuses to worship God they don’t’ stop worshipping, the object of worship simply changes.[2] Specifically in v23 it’s man leaving the true God behind and worshipping a god of their own choosing. A god resembling images of man himself or other creatures God has made. The phrase “the glory of the immortal God” is used here to mean a summary of all that God is in His beauty and perfections.[3] We have a word for such an exchange as this. God, in His beauty and perfection, being rejected as the object of adoration for the adoration of various images is the essence of…what? Idolatry. Usually when we think of idolatry we think of Israel before the golden calf or one bowing down before a similar kind of statue or idol. We think of the first and second commandments warning us against this very practice, “You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything in heaven above or in the earth below…to bow down to them or worship them” (Ex. 20:3-6). Or perhaps we remember the warning given later on in Psalm 115:8, “Those who make idols (and worship them) become like them…”

This is idolatry indeed, the sad exchange of God for a false god. But is idolatry limited to statues of wood or stone? No. ‘god-making’ continues on today.[4] They say our nation’s great pastime is baseball, but I think idolatry is the true past time of all men as countless numbers of us give our attention and hearts and affections to the gods of money, sex, power, fame, sport, and all other kinds of things under the sun. We are addicts by nature, longing for a fix from whatever god we’ve propped up in our own hearts. This point shouldn’t be missed. All the sins of this passage listed later on don’t just spring up out of nowhere, they all begin right here growing up out of the God-forsaking, idolatrous heart of man.

Now, don’t forget v22. I’ll say that a few times today. In making this sad idolatrous exchange man claims to be wise? No wonder Paul calls it like it is and says they’re fools. Or as one theologian put it, “The more man marches down the road secure in his own wisdom, the more he makes a fool of himself.”[5] How does God respond to this? See it in v24-25, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring 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, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Here we see the next sad exchange. When man exchanges the truth of God for a lie and worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator, God doesn’t sit back idle or unmoved. He acts. He responds. He gives them up to the lusts and impurity of their hearts, to the dishonoring of their bodies. Paul will expand on this in a moment, but first explore that phrase ‘God gave them up.’ Maybe you’ve never known this or have learned it before but haven’t heard it in a bit. One way God pours out His wrath on sin is to simply allow people to live as they like for a while and reap the consequences.[6] But more seems to be in view in this text than God just allowing people to experience consequences doesn’t it? There is an activity of God in view here.[7] It’s God removing or withdrawing His restraining influence. It’s as if God were holding us firm in a boat in the middle of a river, and after rejecting Him and His Word and His Gospel and His Church He simply let’s go of the boat, allowing the current to take us downstream.[8] Do you struggle with this? Many do. Many flat out deny God would ever do such a thing. I think one reason is because we’ve grown so used to the thinking and believing and hearing and singing about the endless love and mercy and grace of God. God’s love, mercy, and grace are marvelous and wonderful, truly (!), but is His love and mercy and grace endless? No, v24-25 show us it’s not. This shows us there’s a limit to it. When one keeps pushing and pressing into ungodliness and unrighteousness and idolatry God will eventually stop holding them back from sin’s evil and will give that person over to what they so desire.[9] Perhaps we could put it like this. When any man or woman who knows God from creation, rejects God, claims to be wise in doing so, and runs off into idolatry we could truly warn them saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for, God just might give it to you.’

Paul could’ve stopped here and left it. But he’s not content to merely speak in generalities, so he keeps on and gets specific about the sins that result from God giving people over to their lusts. And it’s here we encounter the final sad exchange in our text. v26 begins with, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions…” Paul repeats here what he’s said before. But did you notice? While the first two mentions of sad exchanges in v23 and v25 centered on idolatry, this third and last mention of an exchange centers on something different. Hear v26-27 in whole, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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.”

These verses are not talking about sexual passion or sexual pleasure, no. Biblically sex is a gift of God to the husband and wife, for enjoyment and procreation. These verses are about sexual misuse, sexual misconduct, sexual relations that are out of bounds, against nature, contrary to God’s design. Despite all the effort and attempts at twisting this text to make it say something other than the obvious, it’s plain as day this is about the sinfulness of homosexuality. Living in the first century Roman world Paul would’ve been familiar with homosexual relations. It was widely known that many of the Roman Emperors engaged in homosexual acts and/or lifestyles. And being one who traveled around the Roman Empire preaching the gospel Paul would’ve encountered many who also engaged in homosexual behavior. And more so being raised as a Jew Paul was taught the Old Testament Scriptures. Where God’s original design in Genesis 1-2 is clear. God made man in His own image, male and female He made them. And after having Adam name all the animals, no suitable helper was found for him. So God put Adam to sleep and created woman from him, and gave her to Adam to be a helpmate, so that they’d complement one another in their God given roles. This is the foundation of marriage. And keep going, this foundational institution of marriage between one man and one woman was one reason the lusts and actions of Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked. These Scriptures Paul was taught as a young Jew he now knew fuller and deeper from being saved by Christ. And so Paul is very clear: all homosexual activity, from homosexuality between two loving and committed men or two women, to a more violent action like homosexual rape, as well as everything in between, is against God’s design for sexual relations between men and women. This is why he speaks of men and women giving up what is in accord with nature in v26, and this is why he calls it a shameless act that brings penalty and disease in the very bodies of those who engage in it in v27.

So bringing this all together so far, see the depths of sin in the heart of man. Man claims to be wise by rejecting the God known from creation. Then in this ‘wisdom’ man continues downward turning away from worshipping God our Creator to worship a god of his own making or a creature of his choosing. Where does this idolatry lead to? For this God gives man over to the sin they love. And being so unrestrained in the chase after sin, man, in his supposed wisdom (v22 is always in play), looks into the ‘mirror’, falls in love with himself, worships himself, and then engages in sexual activity with others like himself. Homosexuality then, is not only sinful. Homosexuality is not only evidence of God’s wrath being poured out from heaven here and now. Homosexuality is ultimately idolatrous false worship, where man has become smitten with his own image.[10]

We believe this. But Christians individually and churches corporately don’t always handle this in the most winsome or wise manner. Two errors are usually made at this point with how we handle the sin of homosexuality.[11]

First, some Christians and some churches in an effort to appear nice, relevant, and winsome make it very clear that they’re eager to welcome gay men and women into their lives and congregations. In many of these cases the traditional view of marriage and homosexuality is held and believed, it’s just not talked about or it’s downplayed so no one is offended. Others in this same vein not only proclaim themselves to be welcoming but entirely affirming of the gay lifestyle, either teaching that Paul doesn’t say what he plainly says here, or that the Bible is simply wrong on this matter. In these cases the traditional view of marriage and homosexuality is flat out denied. This is usually called the ‘liberal’ approach. That’s the first error. Second, some Christians and some churches read what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, believe it, and make the rejection of it a prominent part of their identity. They see homosexuality as the sin above all sins, the pinnacle of human depravity. In some more extreme forms of this, you often hear comments like ‘God hates fags’ or ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ Now because they believe homosexuality to be the sin over all sins they will not seek to befriend, evangelize, or be welcoming to gay men or women at all, even though they will seek to love all kinds of heterosexual sinners. This is usually called the ‘conservative’ approach.

Paul avoids both of these unfaithful postures. On one hand he doesn’t affirm homosexuality, he plainly calls it sin here in this passage and many others. So, we should never deny the plain teaching of Scripture in an effort to be affirming of homosexual sin. But on the other hand he doesn’t shake his head teaching that homosexuality is the worst sin of all. So, we should never be those who teach and believe that homosexual sin is worse than heterosexual sin? How can I draw such conclusions? Look at what comes next in v28-31, “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. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Paul is teaching that all of these sins flow from rejecting God and running after idols of our own making. Claiming to be wise, man descends in a kind of free-fall, into a state where all manner of evil becomes possible.[12] Or we say man is not as bad as he could be, there is always room for deprovement.[13] Perhaps we could just sum up all these sad exchanges in v23-31 with this: Paul is an equal opportunity offender here. Every single man or woman in all of history finds themselves adequately represented somewhere in the list of sins in Romans 1.

But he’s not done yet. After all of this Paul closes it out in v32 with…

The Concluding Indictment (v32)

“Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

If we thought the sin of man was bad before, Paul goes even deeper into the depths of sin in v32. Not only does man actually do these things just listed, man knows better.[14] Man knows such sin deserves death. But rather than turning from them and turning from idolatry to God in repentance, man keeps going themselves and tries to bring as many others with them as possible. When v32 hits my ears I see a picture of the Roman Colosseum.[15] Unspeakable atrocities were committed there and those doing the deeds knew the debased nature of their actions. But they weren’t the only ones in the Colosseum were they? No. A full crowd had eagerly gathered to applaud such vile deeds. Such is the state of mankind. We’re not only bent on damning ourselves, we invite and congratulate others who join us as well.[16]

Conclusion:

As we draw to a close on this first chapter in Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is my hope that God’s Word here would reconfigure the way we understand sin.[17] Far too many Christians zero in on the sins of homosexuality and completely miss the other sins mentioned here. Why is that? Maybe that’s because we don’t want to be grouped together with such vile homosexual sinners. That kind of self-righteous attitude completely misses the point of this passage. And that kind of attitude is probably why so many who struggle with same-sex attraction within the Church are so afraid to ask for help. Gossip, disobedience to parents, boastful, envy? All of these sins are present here with the sins of homosexuality, all of them are rooted in the sad exchanges of idolatry, and all of them kindle the wrath of God. Church, our compassion needs to increase. Because all these sins are listed together here, we should be eager to share the gospel with all kinds of sinners, not just with sinners who sin like us.

Our posture should echo Paul’s. In 1 Cor. 6:9-10 he said this, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Homosexuality is a sin and it does leave people outside the Kingdom of God, but so does heterosexual immorality, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, and more. All of these sins leave people outside the Kingdom of God. But hear it, none of these sins leave people outside of God’s reach.[18] The very next verse, 1 Cor. 6:11, gives hope to all kinds of sinners both homosexual and heterosexual, “And such 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.”

“And such were some of you…” Church, rejoice. Sinners we are, but by grace through faith in Christ, saints we have become. Saints who are now sent with the message of salvation.

May this gospel message go deep in us and spread vast through us.


[1] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 118.

[2] Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 27.

[3] John Murray, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), 42.

[4] Moo, Romans, 120.

[5] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 49.

[6] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, vol. 1 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 347.

[7] Murray, Romans, 44.

[8] Moo, Romans, 121–22.

[9] R.C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 48.

[10] J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 37.

[11] Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, 34–35.

[12] Fesko, Romans, 37. See also Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 53.

[13] Kent R. Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1991), 44.

[14] Sproul, Romans, 54.

[15] Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, 45.

[16] Murray, Romans, 53.

[17] Fesko, Romans, 38–40.

[18] Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, 33.

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