For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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. 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, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul begins by stating that unrighteousness causes God’s wrath to be upon those who perform it. He also immediately points out that none of us have an excuse for disbelief – because even from the beginning of time, the power and divinity of God are evident to all men.
Paul seems to identify the base sin of all mankind as idolatry. He points out that people have no excuses, because while they knew that God was eternal and divine, they instead chose to worship objects. Paul here speaks out against the polytheistic pantheons of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, saying that they worship “images resembling mortal man and birds and animals” instead of the immortal God.
Coming from a scientific/technical background, I often think of these verses when I consider the state of modern science: “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”. Science is nothing more nor less than the search for understanding the mechanisms by which the world operates; as such, there should be little problem accepting scientific explanations for mechanisms and simultaneously the role of God as the designer/operator of these mechanisms. Yet what we have done in modern society is to elevate scientific investigation into the role of Seekers of Truth. Scientists are the modern-day variant of the medieval priesthood: the controllers of all ‘acceptable’ knowledge, and their word is law…even if their word changes later due to more discovery. Rather than acknowledging science for what it is – a highly useful investigation into the mechanics underscoring our world – too many scientists and their disciples have made science into their replacement for religion: complete with a canon written out by Darwin and Dawkins and Gould. Yet though modern scientists understand the beautiful creation God made in more detail and clarity than most of the rest of us, they have made a crucial mistake: rather than worshipping the Creator who so amazes and enthralls their imagination with His handiwork, they worship their own methods and their own images of creation.
Another practical application of this section is to consider those who take environmentalism too far. The first chapters of Genesis make it clear that (in the Adamic Covenant), God placed a requirement on humanity to wisely take care of His creation. But many today have personified Nature itself, calling it Mother Earth or Gaia. It has become a goddess who must be served and protected, all via “green” efforts and carbon footprint reduction and recycling and ecological protection. And there is nothing wrong with those activities…where the environmentalists often get off track is when they allow their protectionism to evolve into worship of God’s creation, rather than taking care of the creation for God.
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. 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. 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. 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.
This section is one that is often misunderstood by modern Christians, so I want to spend some time here.
First, let us notice the overall intent of the passage: to explain why evil exists. Many philosophers have lost sleep over the centuries regarding the Problem of Evil—if God is all powerful, and God is all good, and God is all knowing, then why does evil still exist? Here, Paul is answering that for us. Paul says that while God wants to prevent evil and could prevent evil, God chose to step back and allow mankind the freedom to do evil as a result of our failure to worship Him. It is because we choose to be idolatrous – to worship God’s creation rather than the Creator – that God gives us over to our passions. He does not tempt us with sin; He does not encourage sin; He does not approve of the sin. But neither does He prevent us from doing the sins. The phrase repeatedly used here is, “God gave them up” to sin. The phrase in Greek is paradidōmi autos paradidōmi, meaning to turn one over into another’s power. For example, this phrase is used in the New Testament dozens of times, referring to people being taken into prison, turned over to a council for trial, money being entrusted to a servant for investment, or power being given from God to Jesus. In other words, what God did here was to give us over to our own power. God granted us Free Will.
Think about why He would have done that, and you see it becomes the most logical thing in the world. God is quite capable of keeping sin out of our lives. But from the time of Adam and Eve, we have made the decision to obey and worship things God created (ourselves, Satan, Mother Earth, religious pantheons, etc.) rather than God. So what did God do? He simply said, “Okay. If you wish to be your own god, you can be your own god.” We have free will to sin precisely because we have asked for it from God! We have asked to take care of ourselves and worship ourselves; so He allows us the freedom to do so…even though the inevitable response is often our own destruction. I am reminded of a great quote by C.S. Lewis: “There are two types of people in the world: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ “ In other words, if we are not willing to bend to God’s will, then God will allow us to make our own way…but be prepared for the disasters which result.
Now that we have established the primary point of the passage – that sin exists because of our free will, which exists because of our idolatry and refusal to worship God – let us move to the second point. Paul begins to give us examples of ways in which we sin as a result of this freedom. These sins include gay sex, all kinds of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slandering, God-hating, pridefulness, boasting, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, meanness, and ruthlessness.
Where Christians often get into trouble here is that they love to quote the first portion of this passage, to demonstrate that homosexual sex is sinful. So it is. But they always stop there! Instead, they should read the rest of the passage, as they will be unable to get through that list without finding that they, too, are sinful. Homosexual sex is just one of many ways that we “practice such things [and] deserve to die”, as Paul says at the end of this passage. We must be very careful that we do not simply quarter off homosexuality as a fundamentally different sort of sin than the others. All of these are sins; all of them separate God from man. None here are listed as worse than the others: being a gossip is just as deserving of God’s wrath and eternal death as being a lesbian. So let’s get off our high horses. The purpose of this passage is not to call out homosexuals as sinners deserving God’s wrath; the purpose of this passage is to point out that everyone is a sinner deserving of God’s wrath.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
And…here is where the other shoe falls for many Christians. Those who were patting themselves on the back in the last passage when looking down on homosexual sex, God-hating, envy, etc., now find themselves in the same boat! Paul says that every one who judges another person for sin is also a sinner. For we all practice some of the things on the above list…so who are we to criticize others? Maybe I am not gay…but I have slandered, I am very proud, I boast too often, I am frequently disobedient. If I judge gay people for their choices, then I am committing yet another sin, the sin of judgment! Recall that Christ says on multiple occasions, “Judge not, or you will be judged” and, “The measuring cup you use on others will be used on you”. We are not in a position to judge others for their decisions – we have enough trouble dealing with our own sins!
Paul also mentions another sin here. Not only is judging others a sin, but notice what he says next: “or do you presume on the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Paul is speaking here of something to which we will return later, but here you see the two opposite reactions to that list of sin above—some people will judge everyone else (thus sinning themselves), and other people will use God’s forgiveness as an excuse to keep sinning (thus sinning again). Both of these are wrong solutions.
Paul very briefly and beautifully illustrates in these few passages two very key principles for Christian living; and indeed, perhaps all of Christian living can be summed up in these two statements. (1) Do not judge other people when they sin, no matter how ‘bad’ the sin seems, for you too are a sinner deserving of God’s wrath. (2) Do not abuse God’s forgiveness, but constantly try to reduce the sin in your own life.
If we would all do just these two things, it is amazing the impact we could have on society.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, "That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged." But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. What then?
Here, Paul tells us that each of us will receive what we deserve. Those who deserve immortality will receive it; those who do not, will receive God’s wrath. Paul then clarifies that the Jews do not get “automatic” salvation just because they heard the Law. He says that the Jews are privedged to have been those whom God chose to receive His oracles and Law—no other race in the history of the world has that esteemed position. But that is not an automatic ticket into immortality. Rather, it is those who achieve the living of the Law who will achieve eternal life—regardless of whether they were among the race to receive the Law or not. Furthermore, Paul says, adherence to the Law in outward ways is not good enough: if we are to reach eternal life, we must be inwardly Law-abiding as well.
By the end of this passage, we all see that those who sin deserve eternal death, and those who deserve immortality under the Law will receive it.
Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes."
This passage is the height and conclusion of Paul’s first section—that no one is righteous. Up to this point, he has built his argument largely based upon philosophy and basic understanding of human nature. But now he has built up to the point where he is going to use Old Testament Scripture to demonstrate that everyone – both Jew and Gentile, both those who think that they are sinners and those who think that they are clean – are unrighteous. The passage above includes quotes from Psalms 5, 10, 14, 36, 53, and 140, in addition to Ecclesiastes 7:20 and Isaiah 59:7-8.
This is the ‘hammer’ in Paul’s opening argument: having demonstrated that any sinner deserves wrath, Paul now shows that every human is a sinner.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
In conclusion, Paul says that “every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God”. Most importantly: “by the works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight.” None, no not one.
As a recap, Paul’s discussion of Sin and the Law followed the following logical structure:
1. Unrighteousness and disbelief deserve God’s wrath. The root cause of unrighteousness and disbelief is idolatry – worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.
2. Because mankind chose idolatry over God, God does not stop us when we choose to sin against Him.
3. There are a whole host of sins which deserve God’s wrath, ranging from murder to homosexual sex to gossip and slander to pride.
4. Because we all are guilty of sins (#3), we cannot be judgmental of others for sinning. Neither is it okay to simply throw up our hands and be “okay” with, or embrace, our sinful natures.
5. We will all be judged based upon our works. If we are sinners then we deserve God’s wrath. Otherwise, we deserve immortality. God will give us each that which we have earned.
6. The Jews have a special place in the world as the receivers of God’s oracles and Law. But that does not make them exempt from the Law. Neither is lack of having heard the Law an excuse; all men know the basics of the Law in their conscience, and thus are bound to it.
7. Every human has committed a sin, and as such is deserving of God’s wrath. Not one human has fulfilled the Law. The whole world will be held accountable for our sin.