Homosexual activity, then, is not a provocation of “the wrath of God” (Rom. 1: 18); rather, it is a consequence of God’s decision to “give up” rebellious creatures to follow their own futile thinking and desires. The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1: 26– 31 is a list of symptoms: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3: 9).
When this context is kept clearly in view, several important observations follow:
- Paul is not describing the individual life histories of pagan sinners; not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry. When Paul writes, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” he is giving a global account of the universal fall of humanity. This fall is manifested continually in the various ungodly behaviors listed in verses 24– 31.
- Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order. God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply. When human beings “exchange” these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”
- Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in the passage (w. 29– 31)— no worse in principle than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents.
- Homosexual activity will not incur God’s punishment: it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely informed Paul’s thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this: “Therefore those who lived unrighteously, in a life of folly, [God] tormented through their own abominations” (Wisdom of Solomon 12: 23).
Hays, Richard (2013-07-30). The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic (p. 388). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The does not mean that homosexual conduct is no sin; quite the contrary. It means that the damnation of society apart from God is much broader than just for those who engage in homosexual sex — or the other sins listed. All outside of Jesus are damned — and the damned, as a society, are marked as damned by their sinful, anti-natural, anti-Creator conduct — even if all they do is approve this conduct in others.
On the other hand, homosexual conduct is not worse than the several other sins listed in Romans 1. Rather, Paul uses homosexual conduct as the first and perhaps most obvious example of many sins that mark a culture as separated from God.
(Rom. 1:28-32 ESV) 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. 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. 32 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.
One of many striking features of this passage is Paul’s triple declaration that “God gave them up” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28) to sin. The language is from —
(Ps. 81:11-16 ESV) 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. 13 Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! 14 I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes. 15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. 16 But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Although Psa 81 is speaking of Israel’s rebellion against God in the desert, the Psalmist’s point is God did not want this result. God’s fondest desire was that Israel would not be stubborn and instead listen to God’s word.
Therefore, God is not the cause of the sinfulness of those described in Rom 1. Rather, God allows them to descend into their own degradation. He doesn’t prevent them from becoming what they wish to become. But it’s not what he wants.
Well then, why not intervene? Why let Israel die in the desert? Why let the Gentiles descend into anti-Creator sin?
God’s purpose in giving the godless over to their godlessness is to show the difference between following God and not. If you want to enjoy the many blessings of following God, you have to follow God. If you want a well-ordered society where people treat each other as God wants, you have to part of a society that follows God. And such a society exists: it’s called the church.
The many Kingdom parables of Jesus speak to how we should treat one another, not of civil law and how to govern the pagans. It’s about how the church is to live as a society in exile, citizens of heaven, resident aliens who serve a King who is at war with the Powers and will not bow to anyone or anything but the Messiah.