(Rom 1:21-23 ESV) 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.
Paul sees world history in terms of Genesis. Adam and Eve were originally God-fearers, but they chose to disobey. Over time, their descendants forgot God and chose to worship idols instead.
Idolatry was a product of futile thinking and foolish, darkened hearts. As man removed himself further from God, his thinking and his feelings became less in God’s image and more rebellious.
“Claiming to be wise” is a reference to Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve, saying that by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they’d become “wise.” This temptation came to characterize mankind — who claimed wisdom as they become less and less wise in reality, due to separating themselves further and further from God.
(Rom 1:24-25 ESV) 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.
“Gave them up” is borrowed from —
(Psa 81:10-12 ESV) 10 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. 11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”
A Jewish reader would assume that Paul’s condemnation is about the Gentiles, but Paul borrows from a Psalm that speaks of Israel’s rebellion against God in the wilderness, likely referring both to their idolatry at the foot of Mt. Sinai as well as their later refusal to enter the Promised Land.
When Israel refused to follow God, he left them in the wilderness to die in the desert. He had done powerful, mighty miracles to rescue them from slavery. He’d made a covenant with them — marrying the nation as his bride. He’d fed and clothed them. And yet they had no faith to follow him out of the desert into the Land of Milk and Honey.
The same is true, of course, of the Gentiles, who also trace their lineages back to Adam but who chose to leave the memory of God’s love behind and worship idols.
As a result, after a while, God gave up begging them to repent and turn to him. Instead, he let them suffer in their own sins. He let their sins lead to their natural conclusions.
You see, we rarely recognize the general grace of God. Not only does God save us and give us his Spirit, but God is present throughout the world, making it rain on the just and unjust. As bad as things often are in the non-Christian world, God remains somewhat present, keeping evil from reaching its fullest potential.
Thus, when God gives sinners over, he begins to withdraw from their lives, allowing evil to run its course — so that evil will truly appear evil.
God does not cause people to act this way. Rather, there comes a point when God ceases to plead and he lets those who reject him live outside of his protection and influence.
(Rom 1:26-27 ESV) 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.
God’s giving up means that humanity, separated from God, chose to engage in homosexual activities. The women “exchanged” natural for unnatural sexual relations. The men “gave up” natural, heterosexual relations with women for homosexuality.
In his commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible : Acts – First Corinthians (Volume 10), N. T. Wright explains,
Paul now describes particular “lusts of shame” — that is (so NRSV), passions that degrade human beings, making them less than the full humans they were meant to be. … Out of the many things Paul could have highlighted in the pagan world, he has chosen same-sex erotic practices, not simply because Jews regarded homosexual practice as a classic example of pagan vice, but more particularly because it corresponds, in his view, to what humans in general have done in swapping God’s truth for a lie.
The underlying logic seems to be as follows. Those who worship the true God are, as Paul says elsewhere, renewed according to the divine image (Col 3:10). When this worship is exchanged for the worship of other gods, the result will be that this humanness, this image-bearing quality, is correspondingly distorted. Paul may suppose that in Genesis 1 is it male and female together that compose the image of God; or he may simply be taking it for granted that heterosexual intercourse is obviously the creator’s intention for genital activity. Either way, his point is that homosexual behavior is a distortion of the creator’s design and that such practices are evidence, not of intention of any specific individual to indulge in such practice for its own sake, but of the tendency with an entire society for humanness to fracture when gods other than the true one are being worshiped. The point is: Exchange your God for an idol, and you will exchange your genuine humanness for a distorted version, which will do you no good.
Later, Wright reflects on the current controversy regarding this passage —
Paul’s comment about homosexual behavior is deeply controversial today. Attempts have been made to mitigate its force by saying (for instance) that he is only referring to deliberate swapping from heterosexual to homosexual practice, not what in recent years has been regarded as an innate homosexual condition, or that he was only concerned with practices directly related to idolatrous cults. As in some other matters, it would be wrong to minimalize or marginalize what Paul teaches here. He is not saying, as in an individualistic culture he is inevitably read as saying, that individuals who are aware of same-sex erotic tendencies or who engage in the practice that result have themselves been worshiping idols. He is not proposing a case-by-case analysis. Rather, his argument is that the existence of homosexual practice in a culture is a sign that that culture as a whole has been worshiping idols and that its God-given male-and-female order is being fractured as a result.
We cannot set aside these verses from Paul’s larger argument, both in this paragraph and in Romans as a whole. From this it is clear that he regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intention.
We’ll consider these passages further in the next post.