We now turn to Romans 1, which, like all chapters of Romans, presents a heavy dose of difficulty.
(Rom 1:18-1 ESV) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 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 first argues that the Creation itself reveals God.
20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
This is profound. It tells us that we should see God in nature — not only in birds and flowers but in the stars and atoms and fossils. God made it all, and so he is revealed in it all. Not only is there no conflict between religion and science, but science is one means by which God reveals himself.
Many books have been written on this very subject, and it’s an deeply important subject, but Paul was not thinking primarily in terms of cosmology or quantum mechanics. Rather, I suspect Paul was thinking more in terms of Aristotle, who taught that there is but a single God in an eternal heaven, who is the Creator of the cosmos, the Prime Mover. And he reached these conclusions purely from reason and observation, that is, without special revelation. And Aristotle was well known to any educated Roman or Greek.
“Wrath of God” is not an original concept with Paul. It begins with the Song of Moses following the Israelites’ escape from Egypt —
(Exo 15:6-7 ESV) 6 Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. 7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury [=wrath]; it consumes them like stubble.
God’s wrath appears again when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, when they grumbled against God, and when they rebelled against him —
(Exo 32:9-10 ESV) 9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
And throughout their journey —
(Num 11:1 ESV) And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger [=wrath] was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.
(Deu 29:19-20 ESV) 19 [If] one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger [=wrath] of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
The prophets speak in similar but more cosmic terms. The captivity of Judah was a result of God’s wrath —
(Jer 32:37-38 ESV) 37 Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. 38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
(Jer 30:23-24 ESV) 23 Behold the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. 24 The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intentions of his mind. In the latter days you will understand this.
And so God’s wrath is normally pictured as a consuming fire, as destruction. But in Paul’s use of the word, God’s wrath is seen in debauchery — that is, God punishes people by letting them live in ways that demonstrate how far removed from God they are. In other words, God’s wrath sometimes reveals God’s displeasure, not through fire, but by letting people suffer the natural consequences of their sins.
24 Therefore God 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” or “delivered” is found throughout the Torah, most commonly along the lines of —
(Deu 2:30 ESV) But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.
(Deu 2:36 ESV) From Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, and from the city that is in the valley, as far as Gilead, there was not a city too high for us. The LORD our God gave all into our hands.
(Deu 7:23 ESV) But the LORD your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed.
(Deu 20:13 ESV) And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword,
The prophets use the term the same way, but often in reference to the Jews being delivered to the Babylonians —
(Eze 23:28 ESV) “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate, into the hands of those from whom you turned in disgust,
You see the same sense in Acts —
(Act 22:4 ESV) I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women,
(Act 27:1 ESV) And when it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort named Julius.
In other words, “gave them up” means delivered to defeat or to punishment. To live a life of sin, separated from God, is punishment, not pleasure. It’s defeat, not victory.
Theologians debate whether this means God took away their free will to make them behave this way or simply withdrew from them so that they behaved as they wanted with no divine influence to behave better.
The sense of the word is that God did something, but not that he overcame their will. When God delivered a city to the Israelites, the Israelites had to fight the battle, but God was with them. The key is that God strengthened them or weakened their enemies, but they still had to choose to join the fight.
Thus, God didn’t cause those who rejected him to sin. Rather, he heightened their sin — perhaps by stepping aside and letting sin run amuck. Perhaps by elevating the desire to sin so that their debauchery would be manifest — so that the defeat that sin brings would be obvious to all.
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.
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 decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
And this is Paul’s argument. God reveals himself through his Creation. His nature is evident, and certain sins are obviously sin even to those who’ve never even heard of YHWH or the scriptures. Nature itself teaches us that it’s a sin to be disobedient to our parents (v. 30), and nature itself teaches that sexuality is designed heterosexual.
Therefore, God punishes society that sins against God’s nature as revealed in nature — and does so by letting society descend into the sorts of sins that demonstrate how very wicked a God-less society is.
This is profound and contrary to common sense. When we seen society collapse because of Godlessness, we want to pass laws to fix it. God wants the society to descend so deep that they cry out for relief — for a Savior.
Many an individual has only found God by hitting rock bottom, and we understand that. Paul says that God applies the same principle to entire societies.