We said last time, in considering vv. 18-23 that Paul begins his explanation of the gospel, the good news, by describing the rebellion of man and his suppression of the truth that has been revealed to him about God his maker. To appreciate the good news, one must first face the bad. Man knows God but refuses to acknowledge him and invents instead all manner of other things to worship in God’s place. The worst sin of all man’s sin is his false thinking about God, blameworthy as it is, and his greatest wickedness is his determination to place created things in the place of the Creator himself. It is this supremely in which consists man’s unrighteousness and makes it so desperately important that he obtain the righteousness that God promises to give to those who believe in his Son. Now Paul continues his description of man in sin and of God’s wrath that is revealed against the sin of mankind.
v.24 The “therefore” indicates that what follows is God’s response to man’s idolatry, his turning away from the true God. There is a progress of evil in human life. One thing leads to another. And this progress of evil is itself the judgment of God. It is not simply a law of life but something that God does. This thought is by no means unique to Paul. In Psalm 81:11-12 we read: “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” God judges man by giving him up to his sins and allowing them to gather strength.
To say that God “gave them up” does not, however, mean that God has washed his hands of them. So long as life continues in this world, as Paul will make a point of saying later in his argument, God’s judgment is designed to alert man to his danger. God punishes so as to heal (Isa. 19:22). [Cranfield, i, 121] That Paul should mention sexual sin first is no accident. Idolatry and sexual license went together in the ancient world and the sexual life of mankind has always been an index of its morality. It is one of the grand heresies, really one of the stupidities, of modern Western life, the supposition that man can be good while being sexually licentious. It has never been so; it is not now and will not be in the future.
v.25 A near repetition of the thought of vv. 22-23 which were then the basis for the thought of v. 24. Now this verse is the basis for the statement that follows in v. 25. Once again, they knew better, but did it anyway; a point Paul will end with in v. 32.
v.26 Once again evil advances, idolatry produces a greater moral deviancy, man moves further from the mark and that by God’s decision to let men suffer the consequences of their choices. By natural relations Paul means, of course, the sexual relations that God intended. Just as men exchanged the truth of God for a lie, so they now exchange proper sexual relations for improper ones. Paul is not one for hesitating to call a spade a spade. [Bengel] It is well known, of course, that homosexual activity was regarded with indulgence in the ancient world and that some in that polite society even glorified pederasty – sexual relations between men and boys – as superior to heterosexual love. There were few voices raised against the practice in the Greco-Roman world, but Jews, trained in the ethical world of Scripture, regarded it as unnatural and deeply offensive. It is more unnatural even than the fornication and adultery that were the subject of v. 24. This does not make homosexuality the worst sin, of course. Jesus, you remember, made a point of saying that the upright, religious Jews of his day, who knew the truth far better but rejected the Messiah, had committed far worse sins than those of Sodom and Gomorrah. But homosexuality is still another step further away from the plumb line. We know that. The sexual revolution in our time did not start with gay rights and the celebration of homosexuality. It began with fornication. It got to homosexuality in steps. As the resistance to sin eroded, more sins were tolerated and sins that represented a still more complete repudiation of God’s will for man’s life.
v.27 Some take the phrase “received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” to refer to the sexual perversion itself. Taking it that way, sexual perversion is an appropriate punishment for idolatry and for the suppression of the truth man has been given about God. The punishment, as one describes it, is thus “the gnawing unsatisfied lust itself, together with the dreadful physical and moral consequences of debauchery.” [Shedd in Murray, 48] In the moral squalor into which man has pitched himself he becomes, in Calvin’s phrase, “blind at noon.” He can no longer see right from wrong. He has lost his moral compass. Others take the phrase to refer to the inevitable punishment that befalls those who throw off God’s will with such abandon.
v.28 For the third time Paul refers to man’s willful refusal to submit to the truth that has been revealed to him as leading to God’s punishment, once again taking the form of abandoning man to his rebellion and to suffering the consequences of his choices. Now the subject is not sexual perversion but inhumanity, man’s hatred of his fellow man in all its petty and greater manifestations. [Moo, 117] The long list of sins that follow, a typical list of vices, indicates that all of human sinfulness stems from this same rebellion against God and grows and deepens as God punishes sin with sin, or as he gives men over to their sins. It also indicates that sexual sins and sexual perversion are simply an illustration of a universal sinfulness among human beings. Gossip and envy cannot be excused because they are not homosexuality. They are simply another form of the same rebellion, the same moral deviancy.
v.30 The place of gossip and disobedience to parents in a list that includes murder, depravity, and ruthlessness reminds us also that we are all indicted in this condemnation of human life and, further, that commonly accepted and tolerated sins create the environment in which far worse sins are nurtured.
v.32 People know when they are bad. They are more aware of the sinfulness of their actions and the corruption of their hearts than they let on, even to themselves. But in defiance of this knowledge, and because there is safety in numbers, they egg one another on in the life of sin. The approvers do even more damage than the doers, for their approval brings others to act who might not have otherwise. Sin grows most powerful when there in no inhibition from the disapproval of others and when the society not only tolerates but actively encourages the behavior. And the approving of sin is another form of man’s hatred of man: when he encourages others to do what he very well knows is wrong and worthy of judgment.
Human sin is a terrible power. It can render people utterly blind to what they are doing, utterly insensitive to its ugliness and its harm, and utterly uncaring of its consequences. We see that more clearly in respect to some sins – the use of pornography and drunkenness, for example – but it is true of all sin. But sin is not like that at first. It must work; It must spread its infection. It must send its roots down deep into human life. When man chooses himself and other created things over the God who has made him and revealed himself to him, God punishes him by letting him suffer the progressive, the intensifying, the expanding, and the contagious effects of that rebellion. If this is what you desire, if this is what you choose to worship, if this is what you prefer instead of me, then so be it: “ride your tiger.”
This divine judgment takes place both on the individual and the societal level. Alexander Pope was speaking of the society as well as the individual when he penned his famous verse:
Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien,
That to be trusted needs but to be seen.
Yet, seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
The early champions of the sexual revolution certainly did not predict the eventual outcome: the pornography culture, divorce now so commonplace that marriage itself is being redefined in various ways, 40% of American children born out of wedlock, abortion as a commonplace solution to pregnancy, sexual abuse now a commonplace in the life of America’s children, homosexuality now mainstreamed, and in many parts of Western culture birthrates plummeting to a point that immigration alone can prevent the society from extinction. No one predicted that! Quite the contrary. The sexual revolution was to bring in an era of harmony and love. The “Age of Aquarius” if you remember. But now that all of those sinister and society crippling consequences have appeared, the champions of the sexual revolution have managed to take them all in stride. No one thinks of turning back. No one stands up to say that, obviously, a horrific mistake was made and needs to be unmade immediately. It is inconceivable to them that they could or should live again in a world in which sex outside of heterosexual marriage would be abominated as a sin both against God and against society, in which pornography would be once more relegated to the filthy backrooms of seedy clubs, and in which abortion would be illegal and morally revolting to the society at large. The abnormal has become entirely normal and what was normal, taken for granted, not so long ago has become unthinkable. Paul was right: man exchanges the truth of God for a lie and when he does so God gives him over to his sins.
And this happens in many other dimensions of human life than the sexual dimension. There is a law of progress in sin that can be observed throughout human life. And what is true of society is true of the individual human life as well. The longer a person toleratesor indulges sin the more it takes control of his life, the more it sears and scars his or her conscience, and the more it demands and receives. As an ancient rabbi once put it: “At first sin is like an occasional visitor, then like a guest who stays for awhile, and finally like the master of the house.” [Rabbi Yitzhak, Genesis Rabbah, 22:6]
In the 12th century a Welsh clergyman named Gerald visited a remote region of Donegal in western Ireland. He happened to be there by coincidence for a ceremony inaugurating the people’s new king. All the members of the tribe gathered for the ceremony and a white horse, a mare, was led into the middle of the crowd whereupon the royal candidate had sexual intercourse with the horse in full view of the people while proclaiming aloud that he too was an animal. The horse was then killed, cut into pieces, and cooked in a giant vat of water. The new king climbed into the pot and drank the broth by dipping his face in the liquid while the people around him happily feasted on the horsemeat. It was a ceremony entirely sensible to and acceptable to the Celts. A king was the link between the people and the divinely bestowed lands that belonged to the tribe. Because the land was understood in terms of a feminine principle it was always represented as a goddess. The king was joined in a symbolic marriage to the goddess of the land. White horses were regarded as supernatural animals so the sexual act between king and horse represented a union between the people and the land. [Philip Freeman, St. Patrick, 85-86]
We are inclined to be amazed, horrified, and disgusted that human beings would do such things, still more that they would invest such hope in such a ridiculous, sub-human ritual. Here is man acting like a beast. He is worse than the beast because he knows better. But let God give man over to his sin and soon enough, as history endlessly demonstrates man will do absolutely anything. The earth’s vice-regent, it’s noble, reasonable, morally self-conscious first-creature, created for fellowship with God, endowed with god-like powers of thought and judgment, suited for the life of love and beauty, will stand in the middle of a crowd and copulate with a horse. And will think himself a prince for doing so!
And, so history demonstrates with depressing regularity, he will also sacrifice his children to the gods, consigning them to the flames with his own hand; or he will murder an unsuspecting citizen to satisfy the requirements of a gang initiation; or he will send millions to the ovens to purify the race; or he will take pictures of little children and put them on the internet for the sexual stimulation of pathetic adult men; or he will torture, hang, or drown dogs because they didn’t perform well in dogfighting; or he will kidnap girls and young women and make prostitutes of them, always sure that there will be an unending supply of men perfectly willing to make use of these girls, even though they are fully aware that the girls don’t want to be doing this, may well have been forced into this degrading work against their will, and are probably weeping their nights away in despair; and, in all of this man will find clever, sincere people to justify his actions or, at least, mitigate and excuse them. Prostitution becomes in feminist agitprop female empowerment. Pornography and violent video games – whose corrosive effect upon our social life is already present for anyone to see – becomes an issue of freedom, or self-expression, or a person’s livelihood.
The so-called helping professions – psychologists and social workers, teachers, and so on – have been our approvers, shouting us forward from the sidelines. Staying married for the children’s sake, not so long ago was thought to be both the duty and the virtue of parents, is nowadays thought to be a grave mistake. Why? Because divorce is not harmful to kids? No; we have learned that it is very harmful to children. But because people need to look to their own self-fulfillment. We have made peace with the notion that no one should be allowed to stand in the way of our own personal peace and happiness. There are many in our culture who still look back to the sixties as a movement of altruism. It wasn’t and no one should have imagined that a movement whose motto was “Do your own thing” was ever likely to have the true welfare of other human beings at heart. What we have done is to institutionalize selfishness and mainstream a vicious self-regard and we have managed to do it in a single generation! What an accomplishment! And God helped us do it! We made our choice. He let us see what would come of that choice.
The framers of the sexual revolution assured us that this was the path to peace and harmony, to self-fulfillment and genuinely loving relationships. The carnage that has ensued has long since put paid to that nonsense. The sexual revolution was a movement of deeply selfish people who wished to satisfy their selfishness and serve it and, at the same time, to justify their hedonism and narcissism, to construe it as some kind of virtue. What they have left us wondering is: what horrors await us now as God gives us over to still more. If the indulgence of sexual sins lead to systematic and endemic sexual perversion, to the death of the family, to the blighting of the lives of unnumbered children, what will systematic sexual perversion lead to? If we could somehow visit our world, our society as it will be in fifty years, does anyone think that, apart from a dramatic intervention of the Spirit of God, it will be a kinder, gentler, more just, more peaceful, more loving place? As we act more and more like animals driven only by our appetites, no wonder we have an increasing number of voices among our elite culture wondering aloud if men are any different than animals and have any right to be treated as more than an animal.
Very clever people have always argued and argue today that by indulging this sin or that we will come closer to making human life truly good, but the aftermath is always otherwise. The therapeutic culture’s readiness to provide an excuse for almost all human misbehavior has not liberated people to behave better, as we were promised it would; it has rather encouraged them to behave more selfishly and thoughtlessly and then to blame others for the consequences of their conduct. We live in a society that fully as much as Rome in Paul’s day illustrates what becomes of a society that indulges sins that everyone knows are wrong, that everyone knows are behaviors unworthy of God and man.
But Paul’s great point is not simply to describe the descent of man toward hell or to explain the progressive nature of human sin and evil, how it gathers strength through time and invariably worsens by indulgence. Paul’s point is to say that this is God’s own manner of executing judgment upon human sin. To those who rebel against him he grants them freedom to rebel still further; to those who approve the doing of evil, he grants them to experience in themselves what comes of such approval.
It is, in one way, the respect God pays to the free will he has granted to his greatest and noblest creation. It is, in another way, his kindness to men and women and the evidence of his hope that they might be saved, that they might be delivered from the sins they have chosen for themselves, the gods they have chosen to worship instead of the one living and true God.
Imagine the contrary. Imagine that rebellion against God produced, instead of alienation between people, the heartbreak of blasted hopes and dreams, and such discrete and specific results as disease and loss and death, I say, supposed it produced a very different set of outcomes. Suppose that living in open defiance of God’s law brought peace and harmony, prosperity and fulfillment, happiness and long life? That is, after all, what sin and the advocates of sin tell us to expect. As Simone Weil so perceptively put it:
“Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. But with fantasy it’s the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive and full of charm.”
There is a television program, “Sex in the City.” I am proud to say I have never seen it and I hope you haven’t seen it either. But it glorifies the promiscuous lifestyle and as propaganda assures us of the self-fulfillment found in sexual license. But, of course, it is a gigantic lie. One does not fulfill oneself. One does not find the wholeness of life living promiscuously. One never finds what even the promiscuous are longing to find: that true, lasting, faithful, secure, fruitful relationship of true love. The framers of the sexual revolution assured us that is what they were offering us.
The approvers of sin, the producers of “Sex in the City,” assure us that abandoning God’s law will in fact liberate us to a fuller, richer, freer life. And the Devil has been adding his arguments in the same vein from the beginning and more brilliant. Break God’s commandments, he told Adam and Eve, and you shall be as God. What happened, of course, is that man, so far from becoming God, and acting like God, began acting like a horse and like all the other deaf and dumb idols he put in God’s place.
It is God’s kindness that man never succeeds, never blesses his life by giving himself to sin. Sin is a virus; it is corrupting, vicious, ruinous, and soul-destroying. That is why God forbids it. Sin is not only offensive to God because it is contrary to his will. It is offensive to God because it is so destructive of human life and human happiness. Sin is literally inhuman, anti-human. It produces a human life that is so utterly and profoundly inferior to what a human life ought to be.
Here is Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian only late in life, reflecting on his past.
“The saddest thing to me, in looking back on my life, has been to recall, not so much the wickedness I have been involved in, the cruel and selfish and egotistic things I have done, the hurt I have inflicted on those I loved – although all that’s painful enough. What hurts most is the preference I have so often shown for what is inferior, tenth-rate, when the first-rate was there for the having. Like a man who goes shopping, and comes home with cardboard shoes when he might have had leather, with dried fruit when he might have had fresh, with processed cheese when he might have had cheddar, with paper flowers when the primroses were out.” [Chronicles of Wasted Time, 407]
The problem with sin is that it invariably shrinks and stains and belittles human life. That is what sin does; what sin is. It couldn’t be otherwise because God is perfect goodness and perfect happiness and sin is an anti-God principle, so must neither be good nor happy. A substitute for the love of God, the love of sin must produce a life that is the reverse of what God meant for human life and what we have within us inevitably created in God’s image as we have been as a longing for human life. The so-called human love that is found in sexual sin, for example – “making love” we say – is dreary, short-lived, guilty, and bereft of goodness, and endurance, and joy of true love. Don’t believe its press; sin always disappoints. It may hide the stinger for a time, but only to sink it deep when the time is right.
So, when Paul says three times and emphatically that God gave them over to their sins he is reminding us that we have God to thank for that public and visible judgment of sin. We have God to thank for the continuous demonstration that sin pays a wage, that the way of the transgressor is hard, and that sin produces a bondage to sin that is utterly destructive of human goodness and happiness. Not immediately in every case, to be sure – the Bible is honest about that – but eventually in every case and immediately often enough. The lesson is so often and so clearly taught that we are without excuse for not learning it. Were this lesson not made clear to us by God giving man over to his sins, we might sin with impunity and never learn its ugly and lethal nature until it was far too late.
Paul is talking about the gospel, the gift of God’s righteousness to those who believe in his Son. He begins here – with human sin and guilt – because they are the presupposition of the good news; its foundation; its rationale. But precisely because of the connection between v. 17 and what follows, Paul expects us to understand that what God has done to man in sin is related to his purposes of grace and salvation. He exposes men and women to their sin in order to make them desperate to escape it, first by God’s forgiveness and then by the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. That God’s giving men over to their sin does not have this effect upon all is the great tragedy of human life.
But it has such an effect on many and they are the proof that God judges and punishes so as to heal. The kingdom of God has never been for the well-meaning. It has always been for the desperate. And it is sin and the spiraling consequences of sin that, more than anything else, make men and women desperate to acquire a righteousness that they neither have nor can obtain by their own efforts.
Why is the world so dark in so many ways? Why does human life so consistently fail to reach its potential? Why are the hopes and dreams that surface unbidden in every human heart so regularly disappointed? Why is there such perversity in human affairs: dishonesty, strife, pride, and malice; so much grasping without regard for others? And why is it impossible for human beings to serve themselves, to be self-centered, without inevitably hurting others? Why does the social life of mankind, whenever reborn and able to begin again on some new footing – for example, after a political or social or religious revolution of some kind – I say why does it always decay?
In the 19th century, after one of those revolutions and new beginnings, when perhaps there was more excuse for investing hope in “change” as Americans have been encouraged to do again lately, Tennyson wrote:
Let the great world spin forever
Down the ringing grooves of change.
Now we know the operative word is down. But why is it always down? Why is it down, down, down that the world goes? Why is there also a second law of thermodynamics for the moral, not just the cosmological life of mankind? Why are disintegration and the loss of moral energy always the end result?
It is because sin is itself a principle of death and it is because God will not allow man to thrive and prosper and be happy in rebellion against him. We have his justice to thank for that – his giving men over to their sins is certainly an act of his just judgment; giving men what they asked for as the rightful consequence of their choices – but we have also to thank his mercy and love. It is to force upon us the nature of unbelief and rebellion that he holds our noses to the effects of it in hopes that we will finally turn away in disgust and search for another life and be willing to face again the truth about God and ourselves we suppressed in our rebellion.
It is a terrible thing to watch the life of mankind in this world with a sympathetic eye and to consider it with a feeling heart. The ugliness and selfishness and disregard for others, the bestiality of so much human desire, the unworthiness of so much of what people say and do, the cruelty to others they so glibly justify, the disgusting pettiness of life they satisfy themselves with when they have the power and the calling to be and do so much more. That is genuinely appalling and depressing.
But there is something beautiful here as well: the evidence everywhere one looks that what is wrong is also ugly, that what is evil is also unworthy, that what is done in disobedience to God’s will is also destructive and lethal. This is one of the grandest demonstrations of all demonstrations that God made the world, that he made us, and that he cares for us and for our lives. The world will never work without him and our lives will never come into their own until we are with him and he with us. The misery that eventuates when God is disobeyed is his summons to mankind to come to him and to be saved.