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Study and Exposition of Romans 1:18-32

A. Introduction

“Two things never live up to their billing; the circus and sin.”

“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into nothing. Murder is no better than lies if lying does the trick.”—C. S. Lewis

“The punishment of sin is sin.”—Augustine

B. Translation of Passage in NET

1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 1:19 because what can be known about God is plain to them; because God has made it plain to them. 1:20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 1:21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 1:22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 1:23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling a mortal human being and birds and four-footed animals and reptiles.

1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 1:25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

1:26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, 1:27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 1:28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. 1:29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, 1:30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, 1:31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. 1:32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.

C. Full Exegetical Outline

    I. The basis for God’s wrath against the Gentiles and the fact that they are without excuse is that they suppress the truth about God and have exchanged the glory of God for idols (1:18-23).

      A. The basis for God’s wrath against the Gentiles and the fact that they are without excuse is that through their wickedness they suppress the obvious truth about God’s eternal power and divine nature (1:18-20).

        1. God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness and wickedness of the Gentiles (1:18).

        2. The Gentiles suppress the truth about God (1:18).

        3. What can be known about God has been made plain to the Gentiles (1:19).

        4. Since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen through what has been made (1:20).

        5. The Gentiles are without excuse (1:20).

      B. The basis for God’s wrath against the Gentiles is that although they knew God, and claimed to be wise, they neither glorified him nor gave thanks to him, but instead they became futile in their thinking, darkened in their foolish heart, and exchanged the glory of God for idolatry (1:21-23).

        1. The Gentiles knew God but did not glorify him or give thanks to him (1:21).

        2. The Gentiles became futile in their reasonings and darkened in their foolish hearts (1:21).

        3. Even though the Gentiles claimed to be wise, they became fools (1:22).

        4. The Gentiles exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles (1:23).

    II. The result of God’s condemnation of the Gentiles for their suppression of the truth about his eternal power and divine nature is that he has given them over to their desires for sin to the point where they are full of it and encourage others to sin as well (1:24-32).

      A. The result of God’s condemnation of the Gentiles for their suppression of the truth about his eternal power and divine nature is that he has given them over to their desires for impurity to the point where they have engaged in sexual perversion and have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, including the worship of creation instead of the Creator (1:24-25).

        1. God gave the Gentiles over to impurity and the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves (1:24).

        2. The Gentiles exchanged the truth of God—who is forever blessed— for a lie (1:25)

          a. The Gentiles worshipped and served the creation rather than the Creator (1:25).

          b. God is forever blessed (1:25).

      B. The result of God’s condemnation of the Gentiles for their sexual perversity and idolatry was to give them over to further sexual immorality including homosexuality (1:26-27).

        1. God gave the Gentiles over to dishonorable passions (1:26).

          a. Gentile women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (1:26).

          b. Gentile men abandoned natural relations with women and became inflamed in their passions for one another (1:27).

        2. These Gentiles received in themselves the due penalty for their error (1:27).

      C. The result of God’s condemnation of the Gentiles—since they judged it of no value to have God in their knowledge—was to give them over to their sin to the point where they have become full of it and encourage others to sin as well (1:28-32).

        1. The Gentiles did not see fit to acknowledge God (1:28).

        2. God gave the Gentiles over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done (1:28).

        3. The Gentiles are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, and malice (1:29).

        4. The Gentiles are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility (1:29).

        5. The Gentiles are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless (1:29-31).

        6. The Gentiles know that God’s righteous decree means death for those who practice such sin (1:32).

        7. The Gentiles continue to practice such sin and encourage others to practice it also (1:32).

D. Simple Point Outline

    I. The Basis of God’s Wrath Against the Gentiles (1:18-23)

      A. The Gentiles Suppress the Knowledge of God (1:18-20)

        1. God Has Made Himself Known (1:18-19)

        2. God’s Eternal Power and Divine Nature Can Be Known from Creation (1:20)

        3. The Gentiles Are without Excuse (1:20)

      B. The Gentiles Are Idolaters (1:21-23)

        1. They Do not Glorify or Thank God (1:21)

        2. They Became Futile in Their Reasonings (1:21)

        3. Their Foolish Hearts Are Darkened (1:21)

        4. The Gentiles Exchanged the Worship of the Creator for His Creation (1:23)

    II. The Results of God’s Wrath Against the Gentiles (1:24-32)

      A. He Gave Them Over (1:24-25)

        1. To Impurity/Dishonoring Their Bodies (1:24)

        2. They Exchanged the Truth of God for A Lie (1:25)

          a. They Are Idolaters (1:25)

          b. God Is Forever Blessed (1:25)

      B. He Gave Them Over (1:26-27)

        1. To Dishonorable Passions (1:26)

          a. Female Homosexuality (1:26)

          b. Male Homosexuality (1:27)

        2. To Receive The Due Penalty (1:27)

      C. He Gave Them Over (1:28-32)

        1. To Every Sort of Sin (1:28-31)

        2. Yet They Know the Righteous Decree of God (1:32)

E. Exposition Proper

The section 1:18-32 is part of the larger section of material in 1:18-3:20 (cf. the teaching outline at the front of the book). The function of this material, as the for in 1:18 indicates, is to confirm that faith alone is the only means of attaining the righteousness offered in the gospel in 1:17.

This is so because all men are depraved and cannot earn God’s salvation by their own works or merit. The point of 1:18-32 is to show that the Gentiles (primarily, though not exclusively) are guilty of sin and the point of 2:1-3:8 is to show that the Jews are equally guilty. Conclusion: all are guilty before God and all are shut up to faith as the means by which they can obtain God’s salvation (3:19-20). This is the point Paul is making through the Habakkuk citation in 1:17.

This section, namely, 1:18-32, can be broken down into two smaller sections, 1:18-23 and 1:24-32. The first deals with the basis for the guilt of the Gentiles (and indeed all men by extension), the second with the consequences or results of that guilt.

1:18 With the introductory word for Paul tightly connects 1:18-32 (and 1:18-3:20) with 1:17: The section 1:18-3:20 will demonstrate the truth of 1:17, namely, that all men need the righteousness of God and that they can only obtain it through faith alone.

The wrath of God (ojrghV qeou`, orge theou) refers not some irrational passion within the Godhead, but to his settled hatred for sin expressed or continually revealed (ajpokaluvptetai, apokaluptetai; cf. 1:17) in his giving people over to their sinful folly (vv. 24, 26, 28). History itself testifies to this process!

There is no reason, however, to necessarily assume that the “giving over” is permanent. There is ample biblical evidence to suggest that often times the goal of God’s wrath is therapeutic (cf. Judges). In other words, God gives people over so that they will experience the ruin of their sin and call out to him for salvation. In the Gospels, it often seems that those who lived the worst kind of lives were the first to come to Christ (cf. John 4), while those who appeared to live moral lives were not interested in his offer of salvation.

God’s wrath is directed at all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of people (pavsan ajsevbeian kaiV ajdikivan ajnqrwvpwn), that is, their sinful transgressions against God and their corrupted behavior exhibited within human relationships. In short, all of human life is polluted with sin.

Further, people suppress (katecovntwn, katechonton) or hinder the truth (ajlhvqeia, aletheia) by their unrighteousness (ajdikiva, adikia). Here “unrighteousness” is not so much a general reference to the way in which they suppress the truth, but a reference to the sinful acts themselves which are used to hold the truth from one’s sight. Nothing could be more futile than to think that we can extinguish or destroy the truth through the means of sin. In the end, all we end up doing is confirming the truth.

But what truth do they suppress? Undoubtedly it refers to the truth about God, i.e., his power, authority, and the fact that we are accountable to him as Creator (1:19-20).

1:19-20 The word because (diovti, dioti) should be understood as explaining why God’s wrath is leveled against all the ungodliness of men who suppress the truth by unrighteous acts. It is because what can be known about God has been plainly revealed to them so that they are without excuse when they deny to God his existence and divine nature. In other words, God has so created man and placed him within creation that for man to deny His existence, power, and divine nature is to commit a crime worthy of punishment, even death, as Paul says in 1:32. God’s punishment is just, according to Paul, because such a denial requires the endless suppression of “mountains” of evidence to the contrary (cf. Ps 19). Such people must be living with a profound and irrational deception, to attempt to make this great exchange, that is, to attempt to deny the existence of God.

The phrase what can be known about God (toV gnwstoVn tou` qeou`, to gnoston tou theou) is literally “the knowledge of God.” It is obvious from the whole tenor of the passage that the knowledge here is personal, but not saving knowledge of God (cf. 1:21, 32). It is probably the knowledge that God has implanted in us, connected to the Imago Dei (perhaps conscience), and which is sparked or brought to memory through the evidence of creation. Once again, the suppression of this “knowledge” invites the wrath of God for it leaves man without excuse.

1:21-23 Verses 21-23 begin with for (gavr, dioti) and give an explanation as to why men are without excuse. Even though people knew God in terms of his existence, power, and divine nature, they did not acknowledge him, nor did they give thanks to him or for him. Rather, having suppressed the knowledge of God, they have become futile in their thoughts (ejmataiwvqhsan ejn toi~" dialogismoi~" aujtw~n, emataiothesan en tois dialogimois).

The term “futile” (the verb and especially the noun) is connected to idolatry in the Greek Old Testament (LXX; 2 Sam 7:15; Jer 2:5) and this is probably the background underlying Paul’s thinking here. Therefore, to suppress the knowledge of God is to engage in the futility of idolatry. It is, in short, to give oneself to "nothing," a non-entity, since an idol is in reality "nothing."

The extent of their futility is clearly evident in that they exchange God himself for images of reptiles, four-footed animals, birds, and even human beings (v. 23). While idols can reduce the demand on a guilty conscience, they cannot save, as God repeatedly warns (Isa 41:9-10, 21-24; 44:6-23, etc.). Idolatry is the replacement of God, and true knowledge of him, with any other, de facto inferior, object of worship.

The ironic thing about all this is that people arrogantly annex for themselves the claim (favskonte", phaskontes) of wisdom when they replace the worship of God who is immortal for the worship of his creation which is mortal.26 In reality they have become fools ( ejmwravnqhsan, emoranthesan [cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25]), lovers who will not stay at home, worshippers of something less than even themselves. Is it any wonder that Paul refers to their hearts as senseless (ajsuvneto", asunetos) and darkened (ejskotivsqh, eskotisthe) and Isaiah calls them deluded (44:20)?

In 1:18-23 we have seen the basis for God's wrath on the Gentiles and any other person who acts accordingly. In short, people suppress the obvious knowledge of God in creation—a fact which places them under his wrath. In 1:24-32 we will see how he has carried out his wrath against people who suppress his existence, power, and divine nature.

1:24-25 The expression God gave them (parevdwken aujtouV" oJ qeov", paredoken autous ho theos) over means that the process envisioned in 1:18-32 is not simply the natural course of events but an ongoing history directed by a sovereign God who makes decisions which affect people, societies, and cultures. The thought is truly a frightful one. It is reminiscent of Pharaoh turning his back on God and in turn having his heart judicially hardened by YHWH (Exod 9:16; cf. Rom 9:17).

Though there is no mention of fire and brimstone at this point in Romans, there is a process underway that is not altogether distinct from hell. If people really want their sinful lifestyles, then the awesome reality is God will give them over to it. As C. S. Lewis as aptly remarked, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell chose it.” The point is, that although Paul is not talking about hell here, and indeed there is still hope for these people, there is nonetheless a continuum between their present existence and their future plight. If a person really wants God out of their thoughts, as these people most definitely do, Love has decided to provide a place in the end where they can choose to go and never have to think about him again.

There comes a time in the divine mind when people, who revel in the sinful desires of their hearts, are to be handed over to their desire for impurity, in particular, to the dishonoring (tou` ajtimavzesqai) of their bodies with one another. One should not miss the ideological connection here between the Gentiles’ idolatry and sexual sin—a connection which was commonly made in the Judaism of Paul’s day.

Wisdom of Solomon 14:12-14 reads: 12For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life; 13 for they did not exist from the beginning, nor will they last forever. 14 For through human vanity they entered the world, and therefore their speedy end has been planned (NRSV).

Though there is no explicit grammatical tie with verse 24, verse 25 makes it clear that sexual perversion is closely linked with idolatry. People have exchanged (methvllaxan, metellaxan) the truth about God’s existence and glory for the lie that he neither exists nor merits worship. Indeed, the irony of the whole thing is that they give religious worship and service to this lie (tw/` yeuvdei, to pseudei) when they give themselves to idolatry—the worship of the creation rather than the Creator. For idolatry is not just the worship of useless idols, it is the express proclamation that the biblical God does not exist. Such a thought is so abhorrent to Paul that he finds it necessary to invoke a blessing on God: “God is forever blessed!”

1:26-27 Paul repeats his refrain: God gave them over… to their dishonorable passions (pavqh ajtimiva", pathe atimias). God gave them over to go against the created order and design. The thought of such judgment is horrifying since the people are totally unaware of it.

And again, there is the centrality of sexual sin, though this time homosexuality, which was rampant and honored in Greco-Roman culture, is particularly singled out: their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones and likewise the men (ai{ te gaVr qhvleiai aujtw'n methvllaxan thVn fusikhVn crh'sin eij" thVn paraV fuvsin, 27oJmoivw" te kaiV oiJ a[rsene", hai te gar theleiai auton metellaxan ten phusiken chresin eis ten para phusin, homoios te kai hoi arsenes).

The concept of “exchanging” links verse 26 with verse 25 and verse 23 where the same idea is found. People could not stomach the truth about God so they sought to exchange it for a lie in order to accommodate their sinful desires and lifestyles. Note: The reason women are mentioned first is difficult to say for certain, though it is unlikely to have any connection to Genesis 3 and the fact that Eve sinned first. It may be that they are placed up front for emphasis, since Paul was more shocked that woman, the more modest of the sexes, should also engage in homosexuality. This, however, is simply conjecture.

The expression inflamed in their passions (ejxekauvqhsan ejn th~/ ojrevxei aujtw~n, exekauthesan en te orexei auton) is a strong expression that once having left the proper course given in the created order, men “burned with intense desire” to be sexually involved with other men in shameless acts. One cannot help but think of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah who burned with passion to have sex with Lot’s two guests (Genesis 19:1-11).27

But there are consequences for such perversion. Paul says they received in themselves the due penalty for their error (thVn ajntimisqivan h}n e[dei th~" plavnh" aujtw~n ejn eJautoi`" ajpolambavnonte", ten antimisthian hen edei tes planes auton en heautois apolambanontes). God could not simply allow man to suppress the knowledge of him and attempt to replace it with idolatrous notions and sexual immorality. There must be punishment for such actions. The penalty, then, for such error or wandering from God, was to give men and women over increasingly to the experience of their own unsatisfying lusts. The experience of internal torment and futility which results is agonizing, and if repentance is not sought, the end is disastrous.

1:28 Continuing on, Paul says that just as people did not see fit to acknowledge God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do things that are not fitting. The expression to see fit to acknowledge God is literally “they did not approve to have God in [their] knowledge.” The word approve (ejdokivmasan, edokimasan) means “to test,” “to examine,” “to come to a conclusion based on evidence.” And the idea of knowledge (ejpignwvsi", epignosis) always means “moral or religious knowledge” in the NT. The point Paul is making, then, is this: Men and women tested the idea of God and having concluded that he would destroy their freedom (after all, he is the powerful Creator who has a legitimate claim on all his creation) made the conscious choice to dispel him from their thinking. But since we are instinctively religious we cannot go from God to nothing, for that would be impossible, but instead from God to idols. At least the latter makes no moral demands on one’s conscience and life.

But guess what? People may have disapproved of God, but he has disapproved of them. Paul’s play on words is rich. He says that God gave us over to a depraved mind (ajdovkimon nou`n, adokimon noun), literally, an “unapproved” mind, in order to do things that are not fitting, i.e., things not in accord with the will of God expressed in the created order. Such is the divine response to rejection. We disapprove of God in our thoughts, so he gives us over to disapproved thinking!

1:29-31 Lists of moral vices were common in secular moral writings of Paul’s day and even in the NT. Paul’s list, however, has sufficient differences from Greek or even Jewish sources28 to show that he is not simply taking over uncritically the lists of other ethical systems. There is assonance among some members in the list which tends to support the thesis that the order is not that important.29

The list itself, however, can be broken down into three distinct, yet related sections. The first section begins with the graphic statement, they are filled (peplhrwmevnou", pepleromenous) followed by four nouns describing that with which the people are filled. The use of the verb “filled” with the adjective “all” suggests that the condition of these people is deplorable and worthy of the most severe judgment. Indeed, it is, but we must remember that it is to these people that the offer of salvation in the gospel is extended: For all have sinned and are justified freely… (3:23-25).

The term unrighteousness (ajdikiva/, adikia) is the same term Paul used twice in 1:18. The fact that it heads up the list of vices shows it’s broad field of meaning and is probably intended by the apostle to remind the reader that the unrighteous condition of men is due to their suppression of the truth about God (1:18). The term wickedness (ponhriva/, poneria) means “baseness” or “maliciousness.” Covetousness (pleonexiva/, pleonexia) means “avarice” or “greediness,” i.e., never being satisfied with what one has. It is a direct indictment regarding God’s ability to provide for his creation. The term malice (kakiva/, kakia) means “to have ill-will toward someone,” “to be full of vice.”

In the second section Paul continues by saying that people are rife, i.e., brimming with envy (fqovnou), murder (fovnou), strife (e[rido"), deceit (dovlou), hostility (kakohqeiva", kakoetheias).

There are twelve nouns in the third section of the list. People are gossips (yiquristaV", psithuristas) who attempt to destroy others by undermining reputations. Similar to this is the idea of slander (katalavlou", katalalous). It means to speak evil of someone. Further, they are haters of God (qeostugei~", theostugeis) as evidenced particularly in their suppression of the truth about his existence, their moral baseness, and their passion for idolatry. The term insolent (uJbristaV", hubristas) may refer to more than impertinently insulting others of lower economic or social station in life, but can involve a measure of violence as well. The term arrogant (uJperhfavnou", huperephanous) is used only in an unfavorable sense in Greek literature and refers to a haughty spirit, to the one who must always show (him)herself above others. The following term, boastful (ajlazovna", alazonas) conjures up similar thoughts as well. These people go beyond the normal sins for they are contrivers of all sorts of evil (ejfeuretaV" kakw~n, epheupetas kakon). They are able to invent ways of doing evil against God and particularly against their neighbor. They are disobedient to their parents (goneu~sin ajpeiqei~", goneusin apeitheis)—once again balking the created order. They are senseless (ajsunevtou", asunetous), that is, without moral understanding in keeping with truth, justice, and due regret for the heinous nature of their abominable thoughts and acts. The Greek term for covenant-breakers (ajsunqevtou", asunthetous) is used in the Greek OT of those who are treacherous with regard to God’s covenant. That is, they are unfaithful to him and to his covenant people (cf. Jer 3:7-13 LXX).30 Further, they are heartless (ajstovrgou", astorgous), i.e., having no natural affection for others even within their own family. They are also ruthless (ajnelehvmona", aneleemonas), i.e., completely devoid of any mercy.

1:32 In conclusion, Paul says one more word of condemnation. He says that even though people know such moral vices are wrong, they not only practice them, but congratulate others who do so also. Paul is not saying that encouraging others to sin is necessarily worse than committing the sins themselves. Instead, he seems to be arguing that we are as equally bent on damning ourselves as we are on delivering other people to damnation (cf. Calvin). The knowledge Paul is referring to here is undoubtedly that to which he has already forcefully made reference in 1:19, 20, 21, and 28. People know via their conscience—which itself is sparked through God’s creation—that such sinful behavior will result in ultimate punishment. But, says Paul, even though they know this firm decision of God, i.e., his immutable decree (dikaivwma, dikaioma) to punish sin, they continue in it nonetheless. The knowledge of this decree is not through the Mosaic Law—although that involves a particular instantiation of it—but rather through God’s truth implanted in the conscience (cf. Rom 2:14-15). We must remember that the Gentiles were without the revelation of the law. Therefore, Paul must have in mind here the universal revelation in conscience and the imago dei. Such revelation is certainly enough to condemn, although it is not enough to save.

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: How Does God Judge Mankind’s Sin? He Gives Them Over. But first…

    I. Why Does God Judge People? (1:18-23)

      A. They Suppress the Knowledge of God (1:18-20)

        1. God Has Made Himself Known (1:18-19)

        2. God’s Eternal Power and Divine Nature Can Be Known from Creation (1:20)

        3. They Are without Excuse (1:20)

      B. They Are Idolaters (1:21-23)

        1. They Do not Glorify or Thank God (1:21)

        2. They Have Became Futile in Their Reasonings (1:21)

        3. Their Foolish Hearts Are Darkened (1:21)

        4. They Exchange the Worship of the Creator for His Creation (1:23)

    II. How Does God Judge People (1:24-32)?

      A. He Gives Them Over (1:24-25)

        1. To Impurity/Dishonoring Their Bodies (1:24)

        2. They Exchange the Truth of God for A Lie (1:25)

          a. They Are Idolaters (1:25)

          b. God Is Forever Blessed (1:25)

      B. He Gives Them Over (1:26-27)

        1. To Dishonorable Passions (1:26)

          a. Female Homosexuality (1:26)

          b. Male Homosexuality (1:27)

        2. To Receive The Due Penalty (1:27)

      C. He Gives Them Over (1:28-32)

        1. To Every Sort of Sin (1:28-31)

        2. Yet They Know the Righteous Decree of God (1:32)

G. Contribution of the Passage to Systematic Theology

This passage contributes in numerous ways to systematic theology. First, our understanding of bibliology or more specifically, revelation (i.e., the study of how God makes himself known) is greatly enhanced by this passage. Here in Romans 1:18-20 Paul does not appeal to inscripturated truth per se (i.e., truth revealed in the pages of the OT), but rather to the continual revelation of God in and through creation and in his wrath against sin. For Paul both of these continually reveal the character of God. The creation reveals God’s eternal power and divine nature and God’s wrath against sin reveals his holiness and justice. The reader is encouraged to consult texts on systematic theology to get a better understanding of the discussion surrounding this passage and the whole idea of general revelation.31

Second, this passage also has much to say about personal and corporate sin and contributes greatly to the study of sin, sometimes called hamartiology (Greek, hamartia, “sin”). In reading this passage, bear in mind that Paul is speaking to Christians, whereas when he peaches to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:16-34 he packages—but doesn't "water down"—the truth of human sinfulness in a little different language.

H. Contribution of the Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

The passage is valuable for doing apologetics, that is, the mission of the church in correctly explaining, defending, and applying biblical truth to/for believers and unbelievers in particular. Doing apologetics well presupposes many things, including a proper understanding of man’s problem.

So then, let us talk, first of all, about man’s problem with God and His existence. We must say, up front, however, that the problem cannot be a lack of information, for the heavens proclaim one continuous, never-ending message about God’s existence and aspects of his nature (cf. Ps 19:1-6). The problem, rather, is rebellion. Unbelievers suppress the knowledge of God and have turned to idolatry in one or more of its varied manifestations. This means that unbelievers are not “neutral” in their orientation toward life and God. Indeed, they maintain a bias against God.

Some scholars argue, however, that we as Christian apologists can argue with non-Christians as if they were coming at the question of God from a “view from nowhere” or “neutrality.” They say or assume that we can discuss with the non-Christian from a place of neutrality to the existence of God, as if God were not a priori, but can be found neutrally at the end of a syllogism.32 Based on Romans 1:21, 28, and 32, this is surely mistaken. Unbelievers, no matter what their claim, do not approach the question of God neutrally, as if all they needed were more information (cf. Ps 19:1-6). Paul argues that we already know God (in some positive sense; see commentary) and this creates a fundamental and incurable positioning of all our “knowing,” on the one hand, and decisively figures our orientation to the world (i.e., “we suppress the truth about God”), on the other. Thus, as Christians, we reason with non-Christians from (not to) the existence of God to their memory and acceptance of this truth, using evidence and argument as appropriate—and, of course, relying on the Holy Spirit to enlighten them. Without the personal convicting, drawing, and regenerating work of the Spirit, no person will overcome their inherent sin and turn to Christ.


26 Notice the irony in Paul’s use of immortal (ajfqavrtou) and mortal (fqartou`).

27 The verb used in the LXX means "to have sex with," but the fact that they passed up Lot’s two daughters and instead demanded to have sex with the two angelic men reminds one of the very thing Paul is saying here in Romans 1:27.

28 Cf. Philo The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 22; 32.

29 See Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, ed. Kenneth Barker (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 112-113.

30 The noun “unfaithful” (ajsunqeto", asunthetos) occurs four times in Jer 3:7, 8, 10, 11. Cf. Ps 72:15: 77:57; 118:158 where the cognate verb ajsunqetei~n occurs. Notice too the connection between idolatry and sexual immorality in these passages and that these sins strike at the very heart of God’s covenant with his people.

31 See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).

32 We note the modernistic, naive assumptions about the process of human knowing involved in the use of evidence in some forms of evidentialism. To be sure, some very good Christian apologists have argued that non-Christians can reason neutrally, but we think that this presupposition creates serious problems with Paul’s description of humanity in Romans 1:18-32 and underestimates the noetic effects of sin. Further, to argue that Romans 1:21 does not apply to atheists since Paul was most likely speaking to polytheists is to miss the point that the ultimate, logical outcome of the “suppression of the truth about God” is indeed atheism. Thus the atheist cannot escape Paul’s indictment. Besides, the revelation of God through nature is a universal revelation, given to all men, and all are held accountable for it. The conclusion in 3:19-20 is that all men are sinful and accountable to God.