1. Examine Romans 1:21 within the context of its
preceding verses. What do you observe?
"For even though they knew God," man chose not to honor Him as God, or
be grateful. This is kind of surprising, isn’t it? When someone says, "I don’t believe in God," Paul says that
they know God! They just don’t want to know Him, or admit He exists. Paul also says that thankfulness is an
issue. Admitting that there is a God means being grateful for life and for all His provisions, and that leads
a person to wonder about God’s claim on his life, something a person doesn’t want to face. And so God’s wrath
from heaven, verse 18 is revealed against people who know the truth, but who refuse to acknowledge
And then people become "futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened"
– the rest of verse 21. I think the King James says "vain in their imaginations." It means that people’s
reasonings and conclusions are futile – they are worthless and misleading. They are futile because they are
based on a faulty premise – that there is no God worth honoring. If there is a God, and the disposition of your
heart is to reject Him, then there is a basic disconnect between your reasoning and reality. Everyone knows that
if you start with a faulty premise, you will come up with a faulty conclusion, no matter how brilliant you are!
If you refuse to acknowledge facts that you know or suspect are true, you can hardly expect to come up with sound
You see, it’s not a matter of brilliant reasoning, of good education, or of high or low IQ.
It’s a matter of whether or not you have a prejudice to the facts! That’s why people of high IQ and great education
can be believers, and people of low IQ and poor education can be unbelievers, and vice versa. When it comes to
the existence of God and acknowledging His absolute truth, there is a MORAL, SPIRITUAL PROBLEM! It’s called sin.
It has nothing to do with how smart or educated you are.
2. What patterns do you observe in Romans 1:22-32? What
consequences do you see?
The problem starts with refusing to honor God, even though His existence and nature are plainly
visible. This results in futile speculations and a darkening of the heart. In fact, in verse 22, we are called
"fools." From the Old Testament, we know that the fool is not someone who is a clown or an idiot. The fool is
the opposite of the wise person. To be a fool is to deny reality and refuse to acknowledge God. Paul says that
there is considerable hypocrisy too, because we profess to be wise at the same time we refuse God! We even
pretend that it is our great wisdom that leads us to reject God!
Now the next several verses can be looked at through two sets of words. The first is the
word "exchanged," and it occurs in verses 23, 25, and 26. I underlined it each time. The next set is the phrase
"God gave them over." It is in verses 24, 26, and 28. I underlined these too. In each case, man exchanges
something good for something bad, and in each case, God "gives them over" to the result. Each exchange is an
example of sin, and each "giving them over" is an example of God’s wrath being revealed from heaven.
There is a lot of text here, and we will move faster, but I want you to see the flow: Paul
is not ashamed of the Gospel. The Gospel involves God’s wrath against man’s sin. The heart of man’s sin is his
unwillingness to honor the God who reveals Himself in creation and in man’s heart. The result is a spiral towards
hell, in which each step is a revelation of God’s wrath: "exchange, God gave them over, exchange, God gave them
over, exchange, God gave them over."
The first exchange is in verse 23. "They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for
an image…" It’s not that they "changed God’s glory into an image," as some versions read. They "exchange
it." They traded it; they swapped it. And it’s a pretty poor trade. In fact, it’s an unspeakably bad trade.
They substitute a genuine thing for a counterfeit. The counterfeit, of course, is an idol – some image of some
man or animal, bird, insect or reptile. Idolatry is a flat out rejecting of the God of the universe and the
testimony of Himself He has built into creation and into mankind.
Do you realize that this is the opposite of what is taught today about the "evolution" of
religion? The story you are likely to hear at school, or read in a book, is that man started out by noticing
some scary things in nature – lightning, thunder, earthquake, volcanoes, and decided that there must be some
spiritual power behind them. In trying to bring these things under his control, man invented various religious
rituals and mythologies. As man evolved upward, his religion gradually turned from pagan polytheism to monotheism,
recognizing one god of some sort, until we came to the more "sophisticated" religions we have in the world today.
The biblical testimony is quite different. Man started out knowing the one true God of the
universe, and in fact, man still knows of Him in his heart. As man sinned, and sin multiplied, his religion
devolved into polytheistic paganism. We can see this happening in our own country in front of our
eyes. As people in our culture reject the God of the universe and of the Bible, paganism is reappearing, and we
have people seriously talking about witchcraft, spirits in houses, woods, and hills, the earth itself being a
living being, and so on. People are substituting the glory of the incorruptible God for idolatry right before
our faces. The idol is a monument to man’s flight from his knowledge of the glory of God.
There is a consequence for this. The first "God gave them over" phrase is in verse 24. God
gave people over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity. "Impurity" means uncleanness in a moral sense. It
would stand for all of the sins people do in and with their bodies, especially sexual sins. These are the things,
which "dishonor their bodies," as it says at the verse’s end.
Now when it says, "God gave them over," it’s talking about a judgment of God, an expression
or revelation of His wrath. It means that God deliberately let go of them, deliberately let them indulge their
lusts and do whatever they wanted to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s Spirit no longer tried to call
individual persons back to Himself. It simply means that He purposefully allowed man to pursue immorality. It’s
as if He says, "OK, you refuse to honor me and you insist on indulging yourself. Go ahead and dishonor your body,
and experience the result!" This is not out of spite, but out of His divine love and justice. And it’s frightening!
This is God’s judgment!
The second "exchange" is in verse 25. They "exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped
and served the creature rather than the Creator." It’s one thing to deny the existence of God. It’s another to
worship something that He has made instead of Him! That’s a classic "adding insult to injury."
The "lie" in this verse is anything that is worshiped instead of God. It’s broader than verse
23, which speaks of an "image." I suspect that in context, the "lie" includes man’s worship of himself and his
own desires and lusts.
The world of unbelief wants to say that the existence of God is a lie. The shoe is really on
the other foot. The lie is what people have when they trade the truth of God for something else.
And once again, God’s response is that He "gave them over," verse 26. In this case, He gave
them over to degrading passions. The word "degrading" means lacking honor. To honor a person is to acknowledge
his or her worth and give them the credit due their position or character. To dishonor a person is to do the
opposite, failing to give the credit due. A passion that is "dishonorable," then, is one that fails to give
proper evaluation and credit to the design and purity and dignity of the body which God created. We are well
aware of this principle, aren’t we? When people turn away from God and spiritual things, they seem quite vulnerable
to sinking into sensual indulgence. This is precisely because God "gave them over" to it.
As an example of this, Paul describes another "exchange" at the end of verses 26 and 27.
Women, Paul says, "exchanged" the natural function for that which is unnatural. In verse 27,
he says the same of men. By "natural," Paul means "in accordance with what the Creator intended" and by "unnatural,"
he means "contrary to what the Creator intended." Of course, he is talking about homosexuality. That is, homosexual
behavior. He is not addressing homosexual tendencies or temptations. The question of whether people have any
genetic tendency toward homosexual desires, or whether it is exclusively environmental, is not pertinent to
the context. (By the way, the reason that some people want to find a genetic basis is so that they can justify
the behavior itself, as if our genes force us to take certain actions. We ought to challenge that assumption.)
I want you to see the parallels here, especially in light of the fact that homosexual-related
issues are so much on the cultural agenda these days. The "exchange" in verse 23 is a good thing - the glory
of God - for a bad thing, the idolatrous image. The "exchange" in verse 25 is a good thing - the truth of God
- for a bad thing, a lie. The "exchange" in verse 26 is likewise a good thing - the natural sexual function,
for a bad thing - the unnatural sexual function. Some people in the Christian community these days go to near
desperate lengths to understand these verses in such a way that makes their homosexual practices legitimate.
They say that Paul is only condemning homosexuality that is part of idol worship, or that Paul is only condemning
nasty, lustful, promiscuous homosexuality, not the homosexuality of loving, committed relationships. The problem
with their explanations is that they have nothing to do with the context! The context demands that this "exchange"
be another example of the sin which flows out of refusing to acknowledge and honor the true God of the Bible
and the universe!
Now you can disagree with the Bible is you like – no one forces you to accept it. You can
disagree with God if you like, if you dare – it’s clear from the passage itself that you are free to do so. But
do not try to make words, phrases, and passages mean what they clearly do not mean. Do not turn them on their
heads. I suggest to you that it’s a far more honorable thing to say, "I disagree with that," than to try and
reinterpret it to mean what you would like it to mean!
Paul cites homosexuality here because it so clearly illustrates his point – men and women
under sin not only deny God His existence and glory, they deliberately attempt to do the opposite of His intentions.
I suspect that the thinking goes something like this: "I reject the Creator and any claims He might have on
me. And because I do, I will not only feel free, but I will take satisfaction, in doing things that go against
this supposed Creator’s design." When men and women engage in homosexual activity, they are providing an outward
sign of an inward rebellion against the Creator’s design. And, by the way, they are doing the same when they
commit many other sins as well. We’ll see this in a moment.
Does this mean that homosexual activity is a particularly "bad" sin, compared to other sins?
I doubt it. What it means it that homosexual acts provide a particularly vivid example of a terrible rebellion
against God which lies in every person’s unsaved heart. We all have the same sin nature, and the only differences
between us have to do with whether or not we have come to God’s Remedy, the Red page.
Now this brings us to the last "giving over," in verse 28. The first "God gave them over,"
verse 24, was to impurity. The next "God gave them over," verse 26, was to degrading passions. This final "God
gave them over," verse 28, is to a depraved mind. Older versions say "a reprobate mind." The word is literally
"not approved." It speaks of a mind that cannot stand trial, a mind that confuses right and wrong, a mind that
is completely untrustworthy to be a guide in moral and spiritual decisions. By saying that God "gave them over"
to this, Paul is indicating, once again, that God deliberately lets the consequence of rebellion against Him be
a depraved mind. He abandons men to this condition as an expression of His wrath against sin.
Did you notice the words at the beginning of the verse? People do not "see fit to acknowledge
God." They don’t think it’s worth the trouble. Paul again portrays man’s rebellion against God as a deliberate
affront. People put God to their own tests, and then decide that He’s not what they want. In other words, the
error that people make when they reject God is not accidental. It’s not even an error flowing out of logical
reasoning. It’s a deliberate evaluation of what it’s worth to know God, and then a rejection of Him.
So God gives them over to a whole host of sins flowing out of a depraved mind. All of them,
of course, are contrary to His will and design. These are listed in verses 29-31. Two things interest me about
this list. First, it’s interesting to me that when we think of Romans 1, we tend to think of the matter of
idolatry, and homosexuality, and we tend to ignore this overwhelming list of other sins. Could it be that we
have seen idolatry and homosexuality as really big sins, just because we think that other people
do them, but not us? And second, it’s interesting, it’s dismaying actually, to see the things that are lumped
into this list. I can see, for instance, why Paul would put murder in here, but "unmerciful?" Is it really a
sin to lack mercy? Hmm. And malice – I can see where malice should be here. But gossip? Disobedient to parents?
Really? Could it be that I don’t take some sins seriously enough?
Then I read verse 32, and I feel relieved a bit. It looks like Paul is really concerned about
those who cheer sinners on, and I don’t do that! Yes, I understand the flow of the passage. Yes, mankind has
rejected God and therefore experiences God’s wrath as He gives people over to their sins. And yes, maybe, now
and again, I do a little of one or two of the sins at the end of the list. But overall, I’m OK.
I want to warn you about something. This chapter is really like a giant sting operation. It
is leading up to a great big "therefore." Somewhere along the way, someone put a chapter division here, but
there is no break in where Paul is going. Chapter 2, verse 1, says "THEREFORE!" Here I am, seeing God’s judgment
and wrath on all these terrible people, and privately excluding myself. And then this verse hits: "You are without
excuse!" Who, me? "Every one of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself,
for you who judge practice the same things." Me? Pretty good, fairly decent and moral me? Not just the idolaters
and other sinners, but me? "Yes," Paul says, "You!"
In fact, as Paul moves on through Romans 2
and 3, he shows how even God’s chosen people from
the Old Testament, the Jews, are guilty, until he comes to
Romans 3:23, where we find the absolute, undeniable,
universal condemnation of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived on this planet. "For ALL have sinned
and fallen short of the glory of God."
Does that mean me? Yup. Does that mean you? Yes. What about the person who says, "I don’t
think I can believe in a God like that?" Yes, him too. What about the idolater? Yes. The homosexual? Yes. The
gossip? Yes. The slanderer? Yes. The one who disobeys parents? Yes. The arrogant? Yes. The greedy? Yes. We are
all sinners, under the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness
That’s Man’s Problem, that’s the Black page of the Wordless book.
We all have something tragically in common. In our deepest hearts, we don’t want to acknowledge,
honor, or obey the God of the universe and the Bible. And so, the Bible says, we are worthy of death (see verse
32). Not just physical death, the rest of Romans goes on to say, but spiritual death – eternal separation from
the God we are so desperately trying to avoid.
But that’s not the end of the Gospel. The Gospel is good news. It is the power of God, verse
16, for salvation to everyone who believes. Just as there is an "all" with the
Problem, with the Black page, there is an "everyone" to the red page. Everyone who believes on
the Lord Jesus Christ, accepting as for their own benefit the death of Christ on the cross for their sins, will
be saved, and enjoy a life of fellowship and growth in a permanent relationship with God. A relationship that
extends all the way into heaven, where there will be no more sin and rebellion. A relationship open to the one
who said "I refuse to acknowledge God," to the one who used to be an idolater, to the one who used to commit
sexual sins, to the one who used to be greedy, to the one who used to be a murderer, to everyone who believes.
I pray that it is your relationship too.
John Peterson's personal note: I grew up
in a Christian home and accepted Christ at an early age in a neighborhood Bible club. Although I had
some understanding at the time that God is real and I am a sinner, I didn't become firmly settled in my
mind until my high school days, when I concluded that the evidence in the Bible was irrefutable and
had to be dealt with. A person needs either to reject it, or to accept it wholeheartedly and trust God
completely. God didn't want me to try to improve myself - He just wanted me to believe in Him and
accept the death of Jesus Christ on the cross as full payment for the penalty of my sins. Just as Jesus
rose from the dead, God gave me new spiritual, eternal life through Jesus. As I have tried to obey
God and trust Him over the years, He has proved Himself over and over to me. Despite the skepticism
and antagonism of much of the world to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the only reality in an environment
of relativism, confusion, disappointment, and false hopes.
Pastor John Peterson took a degree in Electronic Engineering at San
Jose State College, but decided that a career in engineering was not what God had for him. He went to
Western Seminary in Portland and graduated with a Master of Divinity in the pastoral major, and then
a Master of Theology in Biblical Literature, along with much of the work for a doctorate. He has served
in several churches as the Pastor for Christian Education, managing the classes and programs for Nursery
through Youth and Adults. Currently he leads the Christian Education program at Antioch Bible Church in
Kirkland, WA. John loves to teach and train and encourage others in the ministry!