This page goes over some basic meta information about this study on BibleDocs.
About this study
Jeff usually gives us a number of questions to talk about as we go through the text. This study uses these questions as a starting point for me to think through and explore the material as we go over it.
If I’m thinking about the materials anyway, jotting things down to do research later, and then actually doing said research, writing it up in some form helps me capture it for the future just for myself, so I don’t forget things. Sharing it publicly on the internet is a step past that, to be sure, but it’s mostly because I’m doing it anyway.
Maybe other people will find it interesting too. That is the hope.
We went over Romans 1:1-23 on 4/26/23, and Romans 1:24-32 5/2/23.
What is a bondservant?
The Greek word used in Romans 1:1 is doulos (Greek: δοῦλος). It is appropriate to translate it several different ways:
- Bondman or bondservant
If you compare translations of Romans 1:1 (e.g., here), you’ll notice that both slave and servant are used. The NIV11 uses servant, for example, while the NLT uses slave.
Slavery in antiquity had a good many differences from the slavery that predominated in the antebellum American South (e.g.), but also had similarities. It was common in antiquity for conquered peoples to end up in servitude, which meant that social status did not uncommonly follow ethnic lines, depending upon the winners and losers in local geographic areas. The status could also be hereditary, much in the same way slavery in America was. It depended on the time and place in history, though, with much variation across cultures and eras.
People might also end up in servitude due to debt. This, in fact, is the most pertinent definition for us here. We are servants of God because He has bought us with the precious blood of His Son. In fact, apolutrosis (Greek: ἀπολύτρωσις)—the word we translate “redeem” (which nowadays has taken on a predominantly theological meaning)—was used in secular Greek (e.g., Plato) to refer to the notion of buying someone out of slavery.
Think about that next time you talk about redemption! That is how central a metaphor this idea of us as servants/slaves is in scripture (to sin before we are saved, and to Jesus Christ thereafter), at least with the Greek properly understood and explained.
What does it mean for Jesus to be declared “Son of God”?
Jesus was fully God.
Romans 1:3 says that Jesus was “a descendant of David according to the flesh”, and Romans 1:4 says that Jesus was “declared Son of God” via the resurrection. He was more than just a descendant of David according to the flesh, in other words.
Together, these concepts provide two guideposts in our understanding of Christ. Various heresies in the past have fallen into a ditch upon either side of this road. On the one hand, certain gnostics de-emphasized Jesus’ humanity, viewing flesh as inherently evil. (This is true for humans with a sin nature, but not Christ, who was born without a sin nature. This is, in fact, a sometimes overlooked reason why the virgin birth is so important theologically). On the other hand, Arians questioned the divinity of Jesus.
Going too far either direction is problematic. Jesus is fully God and fully man, both. This doctrine is sometimes termed “the hypostatic union”. It is one of those things (alongside God’s infinity and externality to spacetime, for example) that is difficult for us as humans to fully understand. But we need to accept it on faith, making peace with the fact that God is bigger and greater than our human minds can comprehend. Atheists may scoff at this so-called “God of the gaps”, but God has structured this world to require faith from us for a reason (that is, He has intentionally arranged the world so that we need to exercise faith in order to properly navigate it), and this matter of Jesus being somehow fully God yet also at the same time fully man is no exception.
How should we approach other sinners?
Just as Paul received grace (Romans 1:5), he urges others to submit to God, so that they too may belong to Jesus Christ as he does.
Because all humans are called by God (even if not all respond), it is true to say that we ought to “call all the Gentiles to obedience” (Romans 1:5—note that it is all Gentiles, not just some groups of elect Gentiles), because they “are among those… who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6), those “loved by God and called to be His holy people” (Romans 1:7).
It is not just people who already believe that need to be told of and reminded about Jesus. It’s everybody, sinners included. When we call them to obedience, it isn’t an exhortation to follow some set of legalistic rules, but an exhortation to submit to God by believing in Jesus Christ, that they too might come to belong to Him. For “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12), since Jesus “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). And if that is Jesus’ attitude towards sinners, then we too most certainly also need to desire their repentance and salvation.
Does faith make an impact?
In Romans 1:8, Paul’s statement directly implies that the faith of the Roman church had spread all the way across the Mediterranean. Consider for a moment that Paul had not yet personally met these people (compare verses 10-12) at the time when he was penning this letter. He didn’t (or at least likely didn’t) have the sort of personal relationships that would give him an insider’s view into the faith of the church in Rome. Yet he was aware of their faith even so.
That must have been quite the witness they had! So if we are ever tempted to question if our faith really matters or changes anything in this dark world of ours, we ought to remember that the witness of our faith is always shining, whether we see its full effects or not. And so it is that we ought not lose hope generally, despair of reaching the lost, or feel down for failing to directly/personally encourage a large number of brothers and sisters in the Church. Just because we don’t personally know all the ways our faith shines light into the lives of others does not mean that our faith is not impactful!
After all, we are but tools in the hands of the Master Craftsman, and He knows very well what He is doing. We just need to be pleased to trust in Him.
How important is encouragement?
Important enough that it seems to be Paul’s primary reason for wishing to visit the church in Rome (Romans 1:11-12).
Encouragement is not some vague, nebulous thing. We derive encouragement by seeing one another’s faith—by seeing the light of God’s truth radiate from each other’s lives and persons. As one body (compare 1 Corinthians 12), we all need one another, and part of that is by spurring each other ever forward as we build one another up in truth and love (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Are we righteous?
On our own? Absolutely not. We are only righteous because we have been washed clean in the blood of Christ. God sees us as righteous only because He sees us covered in the righteousness of Jesus.
Our righteousness is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17). It is not of ourselves, but of Christ. And the only way we take hold of it is through simple faith—nothing more, and nothing less.
We need to get this bit right, because we truly can do nothing on our own. We cannot work our way into heaven in the slightest, because salvation is only by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Who gets a pass?
Paul doesn’t stutter in Romans 1, even if what these verses clearly teach will no doubt offend people. No one gets a pass. No one at all. Every human being that has ever grown to maturity will be justly condemned, if in fact they have chosen to harden their hearts to the truth of God’s existence.
Romans 1:18-25 says in no uncertain terms that all human beings actually know that God exists from that which has been created, so that all are without excuse. (One might also compare Psalm 19).
In theology, this teaching that creation itself tells us of God (thereby leaving mankind completely without excuse when it comes to belief in God) is typically called “natural revelation” (or also “general revelation”). It is distinct from “special revelation”, which is God’s specific revealed truth (as came through prophets in the past, and now inspired scripture = the Bible).
I should note that many theologians (including myself) hold that children who die before reaching a certain degree of self-awareness (as well as people with severe enough mental handicaps that they never reach such a point) are automatically saved. This doesn’t contradict natural revelation in a general sense, since both of these groups are obviously not “the normal human condition.” And so it is that there will be in heaven people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9), despite the fact that some people cry contradiction since many parts of the world throughout history seem to have not received the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Bible makes it very clear that we are saved through Him and only Him (cf. John 10:9; 14:6; Acts 4:12). We also do not know specifics in all these situations, and God is more than capable of using overtly supernatural means (such as dreams) to communicate the truth, were someone in such a circumstance to legitimately desire the gospel (that is, not reject natural revelation). It is certainly possible that God did this, although that doesn’t mean that God did in fact do this, or at least do it particularly commonly.
One might compare the wise men who followed the star and brought Jesus gifts. These men were Gentiles:
Daniel and his fellow Jews are never called “magi” themselves; to the contrary, the Septuagint distinguishes them from the magi: Daniel and his Jewish friends were “ten times wiser than all the enchanters and magi (μάγους; mágous)” (Dan 1:20 LXX). Thus, while Daniel becomes the chief of all sages under Nebuchadnezzar, Scripture provides no evidence that Daniel was one of the magi or that Jews became magi while living in Babylon.
[T]he visitors to Jerusalem ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). This question about the “king of the Jews” suggests that the magi are not Jews themselves, or else they would have asked, “Where has our king been born?” Indeed, since only Gentiles use the phrase “king of the Jews” elsewhere in Matthew (cf. 27:11, 29, 37) it’s likely that the magi are Gentiles also—Jews, on the other hand, refer to the “king of Israel” (27:42).
[I]f the magi were learned Jews under the tutelage of Daniel’s sagacious successors, then why don’t they already know that the Jewish Messiah must be born in Bethlehem? Based on the prophecy of Micah, the Jewish chief priests and scribes know that the Messiah will be born “in Bethlehem of Judea” (2:5) but the magi do not.
The Gospel narrative recalls verses from Israel’s Scriptures that foresee Gentiles bringing gifts to Israel. Once the magi arrive in Bethlehem, they offer Yeshua “gifts (δῶρα; dora)” of “gold and frankincense (χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον; chrusòn kaì líbanon) and myrrh” (Matt 2:11). This scene echoes the Psalms’ picture of other nations bringing “gifts” (δῶρα; dora) to Israel (cf. Ps 72:10 [71:10 LXX]; 76:11-12 [75:11-12 LXX]). Isaiah 60:5-6 calls these foreign gifts the “wealth of the Gentiles,” which includes “gold and frankincense” (χρυσίον καὶ λίβανον; chrusíon kaì líbanon). Matthew also notes that the magi bring “myrrh” (σμύρνα; smúrna)—an aromatic resin that the Jewish Queen Esther receives from a Persian king (see Est 2:12 LXX). More, the oil made from myrrh—called στακτή (stakté)—is said to have been an item of trade among traveling Gentiles in Joseph’s day (see Gen 37:25 LXX), and royal figures of other nations offer it as tribute to King Solomon (cf. 1 Kgs 10:25; 2 Chron 9:24 LXX). Thus, it is fitting for Matthew’s traveling Gentile magi to offer myrrh to Jesus, the King of the Jews.
I quoted heavily from this single source because it does a very good job establishing the point—kudos to the writer. I will also add to all this that God most certainly communicated with the wise men in dreams because scripture directly says as much (cf. Matthew 2:12).
The wider point is that God leads all those who desire to have a relationship with Him to the truth. And so it is that despite being born as the Savior of the Jews, their Messiah, some of the more notable guests in the welcoming of Jesus Christ into the world were Gentile travelers from afar.
The implication should not be lost on us.
What are our modern day idols, given that the worshiping of animal statues isn’t so much a thing anymore?
People nowadays might scoff at the idea of bowing down and worshiping physical animal idols of wood and stone, but we would be quite foolish to think that idolatry isn’t a problem in our time. If one wanted to be clever and make a play on words, one might point out as one example that animals still seem more important than God to some people (or more important than the human beings in God’s Church, at any rate). I might even generally agree with the idea that puppies and kittens are generally friendlier and cuddlier and more likable than some human beings, but we do not have a responsibility to work towards their salvation in the same way we are called to do for our fellow man.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the company of and advocating for the rights of animals, just how there is nothing wrong with working hard at one’s job and advancing in one’s career, enjoying a couple beers with friends after work, or watching a sports game every now and then to relax and unwind. What is a problem is when we let anything other than God sit on the throne in our heart—or even get near it.
Next time someone you know treats idolatry as “something in the past” that only those naïve ancients engaged in, ask them how much time they spent last week reading their Bible or taking in Bible teaching vs. how much time they spent watching things on Netflix or other streaming services. Ask them whether they think their Christianity is really more important to them than social media, given that they may be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and so on for hours every day, but fail to seriously pray daily, or even any frequency approaching daily.
And for those who think they’re in the clear even still… ask them whether they value their family and/or career more than their faith. Work is a good thing, and obviously so is family. But compared to God, they ought to be such a distant second that they are barely even noticeable. Compare Luke 14:26ff. We are not to actually “hate” our family—we are to love God so much more that by comparison, it seems that way by a relative measure.
Nobody is perfect in this—not even close. The point is that we should stop lying to ourselves that idolatry is just bowing down to statues and the like. Idolatry is whenever we put anything in the world (even things that are otherwise good and proper) above God—He who not only made us, but redeemed us with the precious blood of His one and only Son, in order that we might have eternal life with Him, if we would but believe.
What ought we make of the “vile impurity” or “uncleanness” of verse 24?
The New American Standard Bible translates Romans 1:24 as follows:
Therefore God gave them up to vile impurity in the lusts of their hearts, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.
That’s a decidedly strong rendering. Many other versions translate this word simply as “impurity” or “uncleanness.
The word here is akatharsia (Greek: ἀκαθαρσία). You might check the concordance on that page if you’d like to see other places in the Bible this exact Greek word is used, and what the context of those other usages is. 2 Corinthians 12:21, Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 4:19, Ephesians 5:3, and Colossians 3:5 are good cross-references usage-wise, for example.
The word can mean uncleanness in a physical sense—like soiled clothing. But what is in view here (and in the passages just mentioned as cross-references) is the metaphorical meaning of uncleanness in a moral sense—particularly with connotations of lustful, profligate behavior.
In the context of verse 24 in Romans 1, this word is being used in reference to sexual sin. There is no other way to interpret it in this passage.
Despite what our culture might say, sexual sin makes us unclean, and it is no small matter (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18). One might consider the distaste someone might have for a dirty diaper. Do we look upon sexual sin with the same visceral disgust and revulsion as we would that physical object, were it held directly before us? If we cannot honestly answer yes, well why is that?
People have been saying “bah, kids these days!” ever since both kids and days existed, but we would be remiss in not here pointing out that this phenomenon of becoming desensitized to the uncleanness of sexual sin actually legitimately is rather new. If someone from the postwar era of the 1950s were to be sat in front of modern advertising and movies, do we imagine they would take it all in without finding it horrifying how openly sexual the stuff on public airwaves is? The stuff put in front of children?
It’s not legalism. It’s not because we Christians are sexually-repressed prudes who have to discuss sex in hushed tones and breathless whispers because we view it as unnatural and even ungodly. (It is neither of these things, in its proper context). It’s because any sexual relations external to the marriage bed disgust God, and we ought to feel the same way, culture be hanged. Because it is not what our culture says that is important, but what the Bible says.
- Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, and the following verses here in Romans 1 (particularly verses 26-27)
- Deuteronomy 22:5, and cf. Genesis 1:27 (God created humans male and female, according to the Bible)
The Bible is not unclear on the matters of homosexuality and transitioning genders, but it quite explicitly condemns them. And per our discussion just now, we need to view these things as we would unclean, soiled clothing, no matter what everyone else around us may say.
And so as to not have double standards (like some unfortunately do with regards to areas of sexual sin), we sure better feel the same way about sex before marriage, adultery, and pornography too. All forms of sexual sin are abhorrent to God, not just the ones we personally don’t struggle with.
Why would people choose the lie of the world over the truth of God (verse 25)?
Do you wish to be popular? To be accepted? To not face ridicule and scorn?
Then being a Christian is probably not for you. Compare John 15:18-20.
Because God has temporarily given Satan leave to manipulate and control the systems of this world in order to test humanity, we are very much in enemy territory. This world is not our home (at least it is not supposed to be); we are merely sojourners here.
Governments, media, corporations, organizations, even culture itself—all largely dance to Satan’s tune, not God’s. And so it is that we Christians tend to find ourselves faced with the choice of either falling into line and conforming, or sticking out and facing the consequences of such.
Perhaps we may not go so far as unbelievers in rejecting the entire truth of God for the lies of the world, but we might still compromise ourselves in smaller ways (by, for example, being too cowardly to speak up when we ought to). And we do it for the same reasons that unbelievers choose not to believe to begin with—because going along with the world will make the world love us, while standing against it (even if we have the truth, not it) will only make it hate us.
When we are tempted to make peace with that which we ought not just to gain the approval of others, consider who it is that is on the other side of the scale. Why in the world would we weigh the opinions of some human being(s)—fellow sinners all—higher than the opinion of our Eternal, All-powerful God, He who “can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28)?! It makes no sense whatsoever.
But the temptation will always be there, because only those who lose their lives will find them (cf. Matthew 16:25-26), and unless we take the greatest pains to continually look with eyes of faith, this prospect of “losing our life” (whatever we have down here in this world of lust, rust, and dust) will make us cowardly from time to time—whereas we ought to instead always be bold for the truth.
Does God give up on sinners (verse 26)?
1 Timothy 2:4 and John 3:17 say that God wants all to be saved. When people end up not saved, then, are we to think it is God’s fault somehow?
No, such is not the case. People are only ever not saved because they choose against God, and God does not force them or coerce their will. And so it is that when God “gives people over” to their base desires, He is not forever cutting off that person’s salvation, or irrevocably closing a door. He is merely allowing His creatures with free will to exercise said free will… even if it pains Him, as He watches them hurt themselves ever more.
Put simply, God allows us to delude ourselves exactly as much as we ourselves want to be deluded. He gives us what we want (even if it is bad for us)—not maliciously to hurt us, but because He really does give us the ability to choose, and anything less would not be true freedom.
The thing in all this that ought to inspire fearful reverence and awe is that God is even said to be the one hardening hearts (keep reading if this active way of phrasing it seems “off” to you). Romans 1:26 aside, Exodus 14 showcases this phenomenon, when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that the Egyptians foolishly chased after the Israelites, even after having already tasted of the supernatural consequences of such a path.
For a through technical discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart specifically, see here.
After the Egyptians faced the ten plagues described in Exodus (culminating in the loss of their firstborn sons), they definitely ought to have known better than to go after God’s people again. No matter how iron their stomachs might be, humans beings are not so deficient in self-preservation that they will, with properly-functioning neurons (so to speak), zealously pursue a path leading to their own certain destruction. But God will even remove the restraint of natural instincts to let us chase our folly, if it is what we have decided we want.
For any Classics nerds out there, what we are discussing here fits right in with the literary theme of madness (μανία) in Greek myth and tragedy. The Ancient Greeks often considered madness to be a means of divine punishment for an act of hubris or sacrilege. The gods would blind someone to the consequences of their actions so that they would do things that normal logic and restraint would otherwise stop them from doing—usually to tragic effect.
It is decidedly dangerous to try to interpret the Bible in terms of secular writings, but that is not the point of bringing this up. The point is that even the ancient pagans understood the connection between human sin and madness/folly.
All sin against God is, in essence, temporary madness. If we would keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus Christ, the divine logos (Greek: λόγος)—He who gives order and logic to the universe—we would find our thinking transformed, such that we no longer suffer under the madness and irrationality of sin, but have “clear eyes,” eyes quickened by the spiritual insight afforded by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
All this to say, God’s progressive removal of restraint from wayward children is the logical end result of what Him respecting our free will truly means, and it is more than a bit terrifying to ponder. For example, one implicit consequence of all this is that each and every one of us is capable of great evil—not that we would ever do certain things now with our critical thinking intact, but were we to resolutely decide to act against nature and morality, God would make it possible for us to do so, by removing the blessing of natural restraint. Because God will always respect our choices, be them for good or ill, our free will puts 100% of the responsibility for our choices upon us!
As another example of God giving creatures over to their folly, consider Satan’s rebellion against God. Satan is an angel far more intelligent and capable than we can even imagine. He was the preeminent created being—the one tasked with warding off evil from the throne of God (cf. Ezekiel 28:11ff.). Satan knew God. But he still chose to raise his arm against his Creator. It is utter madness, complete insanity. How could a finite created being ever defeat his Infinite Maker?!
God removing restraint from those choosing a path of rebellion is basically synonymous with Him removing His blessings of insight/understanding from them. These things—cf. the human conscience—are gifts God gives humanity out of His great Mercy and Grace, not because He must. But when people turn away from Him, He merely removes some of these blessings He would not need to give us to begin with. Without these blessings He gives, we would all be in this sorry state of blindness, lacking the ability to understand even the most basic of spiritual truths. Praise be to God that He only removes His insight from us if that is well and truly what we have decided in our heart of hearts that we want, and never for any other reason!
In any case, we might rephrase what we have been talking about to be something like “God removes His blessings of general insight and accurate spiritual appraisal from wayward creatures, so that they are able to make the choices that they truly wish to make, insane as they may be in reality.” And so it is that when Jesus literally raised people from the dead, still those witnessing such a miracle did not believe, not even with the irrefutable evidence right before their eyes. God made it so that they would not believe—through His removal of His insight. When their eyes became blinded and their ears closed up, it was not because God withheld the truth from those who wanted it; rather, because people did not want the truth, God merely gave them over to their choice. This is what is really going on in Matthew 13:13-15.
Calvinists take all this the wrong way and say that this is all God controlling who is saved and who isn’t, but in fact that is entirely backwards. That is, God does not harden people’s hearts such that they don’t want the truth, but people don’t want the truth such that God is compelled to harden their hearts (=remove His restraint/remove His insight) so that they aren’t forced—by the clear logic of a level-headed appraisal without such hardness of heart—into acknowledging the truth. God stifles spiritual insight in or even completely removes spiritual insight from those who do not want to believe, such that even the clearest, most irrefutable evidence appears to them as no more than foolish nonsense (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18). Think about that for a second!
The wording here can be a bit tricky if we aren’t careful. When we say “God hardens someone heart” (with God as the subject of this active verb), we must specify exactly what we mean by that, else we risk causing misunderstandings (e.g., that God is somehow causally responsible for unbelief and/or evil). Here are a couple ways of framing these concepts that I personally find helpful in elucidating the correct teachings:
- God hardens the hearts only of those who want their hearts to be hardened.
- Let’s say that going down a path of spiritual hardness is like driving a car off a cliff. Then God does not pick up someone’s car and drop it off the side of the cliff, but simply removes the guardrails that had been there before, and then the person in question drives over the side all on their own.
So it is best to view hardness of heart as removal of restraint/insight according to someone’s free will request, rather than God actively causing someone to become hardened to the truth (as if the person’s free will had nothing to do with it).
There will come a time when God will remove the veil, remove the hardness by which He allows humanity to deceive itself, and thereby reject Him. At that time, “every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess” (cf. Isaiah 45:23; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10-11). (Note: this does not teach Universalism. Instead, it is more along the lines of hitting the back of an unwilling prisoner’s knees to make him bow before the King. On that Great Day of Days, people will be powerless to deny the truth, and the weight of it will force out an acknowledgement of God’s Righteous Authority, completely against their will). The only reason why people aren’t forced to their knees in the present—overwhelmed by the sheer Majesty of the Almighty—is because He hardens their hearts according to their desire to not be with Him.
So to bring us full circle, God never gives up on us. The door is always open if we would but turn to Him (compare the parable of the prodigal son). But He will also let us freely toss Him aside without cognitive dissonance or discomfort—if it is what we decide we truly want—since He will harden our hearts ever more if we continually choose against Him. And that is a most sobering thought indeed. May we ever choose to submit to Him rather than forcing Him to harden our hearts!
What about when God gives people no more chances?
For example, when coming into the Promised Land, the Israelites were commanded to kill the Canaanites down to man, woman, and child (cf. the book of Joshua). Those people no longer had any more chances to turn back and repent. So too when God rained fire down upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis chapters 18-19). And this will also be true when Jesus Christ returns again in glory to slaughter the armies of antichrist (Revelation 19:11-21).
Is it just? How can God make it so some people seemingly have a longer opportunity to turn from their sin than others, who are violently wiped from the face of the Earth and cut off?
Past a certain point, we need to understand that questioning God’s Justice very much becomes the clay questioning the Potter (cf. Romans 9:20). God knows what He is doing. These people we perhaps feel sorry for would not have repented even if God had given them additional years of chances—even many more lifetimes of chances. For all who do not believe do not believe of their own will. And let us not forget that natural revelation leaves all without excuse anyway (as we discussed above). If given another chance, they would still spit in God’s face rather than submit to Him… even though He has already judged His own Son in their place, that they might be forgiven and have eternal life, if only they would not say no. God has already done absolutely all He can for these people, short of overriding their free will to force them to believe.
Anyhow, all judgement is in the hands of the Lord. He is the one who controls such things as the fate of nations, “their appointed times in history, and the boundaries of their lands” (Acts 17:26). When He metes out justice, it is utterly perfect. We must believe that—not weakly and with lingering uncertainty, but with full confidence. For we serve a God who is the Perfect Judge of all things. No one will ever receive anything other than exactly that which they deserve (cf. Romans 2:6-8, which we will get to soon enough).
We should keep in mind that a large part of the “rebalancing of accounts” will happen only on the other side. In other words, our tears of today may not be recompensed in this life, but will instead buy for us eternal glory in the New Heavens and New Earth, if only we hold on to our faith. Since many sinful actions in this life have natural negative consequences (the wicked “falling into their own traps”—cf. Psalm 7:15-16), and many noble actions have natural positive consequences, it is not as if there is no balancing of the scales of justice even in this life. But it remains true that much will not be completely set to rights until that Great Day of Days. Then, we will no longer wonder how the wicked seem to win while the righteous lose, because all will be made clear—with justice perfectly rendered to each, according to his or her thoughts, words, and deeds.
Atheists find this concept to be complete madness. Karl Marx famously called religion “the opiate of the masses,” and George Orwell mocks the concept as well in his allegorical novella Animal Farm. In that novella, a raven named Moses spreads tales of “Sugarcandy Mountain” to the other animals, saying that all their work will not be for nothing and that after they die they will be rewarded in this paradise. The pigs (representing communist authority) initially scorn his ideas and try to convince the other animals not to listen to him. But then once they are in power, they change their tune, and keep the raven around to manipulate the other animals, so that on account of these fantastical (implied to be false) tales of paradise, they will docilely put up with being treated unjustly in the present.
However right the critics might be about wicked governments trying to prevent revolts against their unjust rule by appealing to religion (or whatever else they might think effective), that is not itself proof that a belief that all things will be set to rights in the final accounting of things is merely wishful thinking. No indeed, inescapable justice will come for the wicked from the hand of God. For “If he [the wicked man] does not turn back, He [God] will sharpen His sword; He bends His bow and makes it ready. He also prepares for Himself instruments of death; He makes His arrows into fiery shafts” (Psalm 7:12-13).
What is a “dishonorable passion” or “shameful lust” in this context (verse 26)?
In context here, the “shameful lusts” that God gave these people over to, these people who “neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him” (Romans 1:21), were:
- Their women exchanging natural sexual relations relations for unnatural ones.
- The men abandoning natural relations with women, inflamed with lust for one another.
Romans 1:27 begins with the Greek word homoios (Greek: ὁμοίως), which is an adverb meaning, essentially, “in the same way” or “likewise.” We are not left to wonder what the “unnatural relations” engaged in by the women were (verse 26), for this word irrefutably links the unnaturalness to same-sex lust, since that is what is described of the men in verse 27.
To be clear, homosexuality is not the only “shameful lust” in the world, or altogether categorically different from, say, lusting after an already married woman. It is merely the shameful lust being spoken of here in this context.
These verses are quite unambiguous. Homosexual relationships between women and homosexual relationships between men are here said to be shameful and degrading, with no qualification whatsoever. This does not stop people from trying to twist the passage to come up with all sorts of arguments for explaining why 2 + 2 does not somehow equal 4, but the fact remains. Anyone who does not teach that this passage condemns homosexuality demonstrates low respect for the Bible, and therefore ought not be trusted in any spiritual capacity. In our times, it is not the only means by which one might identify people with low respect for the Bible (e.g., support for women pastors is another one, given the clearness of 1 Timothy 2:12), but it is an effective one, given the mounting cultural pressures to accept and even praise homosexuality.
In verse 27, love is love, right? You can’t be against love!
The Bible says God is love (1 John 4:8). How then can God be against the love between two men and two women, if they “really love each other?”
These people have obviously never studied Greek. If they had, they would know that Greek actually has multiple words for love (one might argue that perhaps φιλαυτία and ξενία qualify too, but for now we’ll leave them aside):
- Agape (Greek: ἀγάπη) - The unconditional love that God has for humanity, and the love that we also are to have not only for each other, but even for our enemies. (This is the word used of God in 1 John 4:8).
- Philia (Greek: φιλία) - Brotherly love between close friends, as in that between all of us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Storge (Greek: στοργή) - The love of parents and children; familial love.
- Eros (Greek: ἔρως) - Sexual passion.
All of us Christians are supposed to have agape love for each other according to John 13:35. The noun agape and verb agapao (Greek: ἀγαπάω) are quite widely used in the NT, as the links will show if you reference the concordance entries.
The noun philia is not directly used much in the NT (just in James 4:4, and even that is talking about love for the world), but the concept certainly is: we are to love the brethren, all those who believe. See also the verb form phileo (Greek: φιλέω).
At any rate, the point is that agape, philia, and storge are all forms of love that can (and should!) cross genders freely. Eros, on the other hand, is not so. It is only to be between married couples, as the Bible makes crystal clear in multiple places.
And this is why it is quite improper to conflate “God is love” with “homosexual romantic relationships are OK.” Leaving aside the fact that the Bible directly condemns homosexuality (like we just covered), this “God supports love” argument doesn’t even pass muster on its own. Not if you distinguish between types of love like one obviously ought to do.
What is the due penalty within themselves (verse 27)?
There are two fundamental questions when it comes to interpreting the latter part of verse 27:
- What is the error in view?
- What is the penalty in view?
Most translations leave things a bit ambiguous here in verse 27: see here for a comparison of translations of this verse across Bible versions. This is a actually a good thing, since the Greek itself is ambiguous.
ὁμοίως τε καὶ οἱ ἄρσενες ἀφέντες τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν τῆς θηλείας ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους, ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν τὴν ἀσχημοσύνην κατεργαζόμενοι καὶ τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν ἣν ἔδει τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἀπολαμβάνοντες.
The latter part of verse 27 is a participial phrase modifying the subject of the sentence, οἱ ἄρσενες. This verse actually has several different participles, such that a very literal translation would be:
And in the same way, the men also, having abandoned [aorist active participle] the natural use of women, were inflamed [aorist passive indicative] in their desire for other men, with the men committing [present middle participle] indecent acts, and receiving [present active participle] in themselves the penalty which was was proper [imperfect impersonal, from δεῖ] for their error.
In any case, the last part of the sentence (τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν ἣν ἔδει τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἀπολαμβάνοντες) does not specify exactly what the penalty is (τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν—accusative here, that which is received), nor what their error is (τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν—genitive here, modifying τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν).
Since it is decidedly ambiguous in the Greek, leaving it ambiguous when translating it into English is a good choice.
You’ll note that of the translations, the NLT actually does not leave things ambiguous, but chooses to interpret in its translation, making the penalty explicitly/specifically tied to the homosexuality. This is typical of the NLT, which is a highly interpretive translation. Like the little girl from the Longfellow poem, when the NLT is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid. The NIV is much the same, although somewhat less interpretive overall.
The issue with this is that it makes it seem like the text could not at all support taking the error as the idolatry/unbelief mentioned earlier in the passage, with the penalty in view then being removal of restraint such that the people in question are given over to the unnatural sexual desires. Some interpreters in fact think that is really more what is in view here. For example, you might have a look at these posts on the Hermeneutics StackExchange:
These takes are completely different from the interpretation that the NLT’s translation forces. So, what are we to make of all this? Which way ought we take things?
I actually do not view this as an exclusive choice at all. Verse 24 directly says that as a result of their unbelief and idolatry, God gave them over to the shameful behavior relating to homosexuality (and compare also the first part of verse 26). But this new sinful behavior had consequences of its own too, in turn. In a manner of speaking then, the clause “receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” is serving to speak to “all of the above”:
- Because of their idolatry, God gave them over to homosexuality (verse 24 and 26a)
- But also because of this shameful behavior of homosexuality, additional consequences too will follow
To the extent that the error is “suppressing the truth” (Rom.1:18), the penalty is “handing them over to a reprobate mind” (Rom.1:28); to the extent that the error is specifically “abandoning natural relations”, then the penalty is the natural results of such degrading behavior (see below—the result of sin is always death, and sexual sin specifically comes in for special reproof). This concept of compounding choices and consequences is akin to the virtuous cycle of spiritual growth, but the opposite—a feedback loop of depravity.
Hopefully this explanation makes sense. It can take a bit of squinting to see how the all the bits fit together, but the passage really does make the most sense if you view this clause as being inclusive and broad in its application rather than exclusive and specific.
The penalty for sin generally: death
To go a bit deeper into what sort of “general consequences” come from sinful behavior (like the degrading of one’s body in unnatural sexual relations in this specific context):
The wages of sin is death
Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
The Bible is very clear that sin leads to death. There are actually three aspects of death. When Eve ate from the tree after being tempted by Satan, she did not immediately die physically (hence Satan’s selection of this half-truth angle of attack), although now she inevitably would eventually. However, she did immediately die spiritually—she was instantly cut off from the perfect fellowship with God she had enjoyed up until this point. And this action of hers—absenting a Savior being judged in her place, as foreshadowed by the animal skins God gives in Genesis 3—would lead to eternal or (“second”) death.
For believers, sin separates us from God until we confess and restore our relationship with Him; it does inherently cause spiritual death. And if we keep on sinning despite mounting divine discipline, one of the other two types of death will inevitably come into play too. Either God will take us out of the world due to our exceedingly poor witness for His Name (the so-called “sin unto death”), or we will harden ourselves to the truth enough that we actually stop believing (apostasy).
So sin is serious business. We do not at all lose our salvation the moment we sin (or anything close to that), but should we ever give ourselves over to it completely, well, the Bible says:
9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
9 Don’t you know that evil people will not receive God’s kingdom? Don’t be fooled. Those who commit sexual sins will not receive the kingdom. Neither will those who worship statues of gods or commit adultery. Neither will men who are prostitutes or who commit homosexual acts. 10 Neither will thieves or those who always want more and more. Neither will those who are often drunk or tell lies or cheat. People who live like that will not receive God’s kingdom.
Not inheriting the kingdom of God means not being saved: being subject to the second death.
Sexual sin specifically
The passage we just quoted from in 1 Corinthians 6 is quite relevant to our specific context here in Romans 1, for it also goes on to describe the severity of sexual sin specifically:
13 The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
13 […] The body is not meant for sexual sins. The body is meant for the Lord. And the Lord is meant for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead. He will also raise us up. 15 Don’t you know that your bodies belong to the body of Christ? Should I take what belongs to Christ and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 Don’t you know that when you join yourself to a prostitute, you become one with her in body? Scripture says, “The two will become one.” (Genesis 2:24) 17 But anyone who is joined to the Lord becomes one with him in spirit.
18 Keep far away from sexual sins. All the other sins a person commits are outside his body. But sexual sins are sins against one’s own body. 19 Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is in you. You have received him from God. You do not belong to yourselves. 20 Christ has paid the price for you. So use your bodies in a way that honors God.
Are people “born gay” (verse 28)?
We need to be careful and precise when discussing this topic. What do I mean by that? Well:
- Thought, word, and deed are always choices under the purview of human free will. So choosing to actually involve oneself sexually with someone of the same sex (or nurse lust for them in one’s mind, etc.) is entirely a free will decision. Full stop. One can always choose to resist temptation rather that giving into it.
- But what about the desires/temptations themselves? Can people just “think themselves out of” improper attraction?
It might be tempting to say that it doesn’t matter whether or not homosexual temptation is under the control of human will. After all, it wouldn’t change a single thing about what is allowable or not. That is, the sinful things are sinful regardless of where the temptation to do these sinful things comes from, and to what degree such temptation is under our control.
The problem with just leaving things at that is that a certain legalistic attitude tends to predominate among those that think that “it’s all just some sort of curable mental disorder.” As in, they think all people who claim to struggle with homosexual attraction against their will must just be lying or making it all up, just failing to admit their own blatant sinfulness, or something like that. This sort of thinking is quite presumptuous. For the Bible never makes such a point explicitly, and therefore we have no ground to stand on to make this a matter of black and white certainty.
Now, to be fair, the Bible never says the opposite either (that is, that it is definitely the case that some people are tested in this area completely aside from any free will choices of their own). But it is rather obvious from scripture and everyday experience that different people have different strengths and weaknesses. The sin that might so easily trip you up (cf. Hebrews 12:1) might be no big deal for me… but perhaps what so easily trips me up is likewise no big deal for you! This does not make either of us better or worse than the other, just different.
And so if some people tend to struggle with anger more, and some pride, and some lust of the heterosexual variety, well, why would a temptation towards lust of the homosexual variety be categorically different in this regard? Does it not seem more likely that it too is merely another burden of the flesh that someone might have to deal with on the long road to Zion? Just like the burdens of the flesh we all must struggle against on our own journeys?
And even more to the point, honest people possessing heterosexual attraction will freely acknowledge that one cannot make attraction go away just because it is not proper. You might be sexually attracted to your married friend’s wife, for example, even if you would much rather it didn’t hit you like a truck every time you saw her. If you make absolutely every effort to nip those thoughts in the bud whenever they arise, it is possible to navigate the situation without sin, but the point is that the attraction is there regardless. Are such heterosexual people just lying too in saying they can’t help the attraction? Is it all just in their heads as well?
On the other hand, I think it would be blatantly irresponsible not to also point out that there is a large potential for “copycat effects” mediated through the media (cf. copycat crimes and copycat suicides). People in the LGBTQ+ community commonly state that more people are “coming out” now in modern times because society is being more accepting of these behaviors (i.e., they assert that X percentage of population “has always been such,” but we are only now getting a more accurate count of the true proportions). While this idea of closeted people “finally being true to themselves” (their words) due to our new cultural climate may be statistically true to a degree (it makes logical sense, from a behavioral point of view = of course people in the past tried to avoid stigma and negative consequences by hiding that which would get them in hot water), I also find it very likely that the immense amount of positive media portrayal of depraved sexual behavior in the present has made it inherently more common and fashionable for impressionable young people to convince themselves that they “are” XYZ. This would seem to muddy the waters to me, as it would suggest that the number of people who identify as homosexual may include people for whom the same-sex attraction is more learned cultural impulse than raw biology. Or at least that seems to be a distinct possibility that cannot be ruled out in any sort of deterministic fashion, since you cannot inherently separate people from their culture, making literally the entire statistical sample biased.
So… maybe its not controllable in some cases, and maybe our current culture’s idolization of sexual deviance artificially creates it where it otherwise wouldn’t be naturally (cf. advertising stirring up materialistic desire in consumers that wouldn’t otherwise be there)? Can we really say for sure about all the specifics?
Leaving things here in this discussion may be somewhat unsatisfying in that no hard position is being put forward, per se. However, what I can say with certainty is that:
- We must accept those who confess Christ and repent of sinful behaviors—those who both acknowledge such behaviors as wrong and also acknowledge their need for forgiveness for any lapses. We are all sinners in need of grace, after all (Romans 3:23; James 3:2).
- But we must never accept those who claim to be Christian and yet refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality is wrong. That would put us in direct opposition to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. (And Romans 1:32, in our immediate context—since we would essentially be approving of evil).
What is the result of our passions (verse 28)?
As the verse directly says, the result of straying from God’s truth is God giving us over to a depraved mind, so that we do what ought not to be done.
We discussed some of mechanics of this already above, in talking about how God won’t give up on sinners, but will let people freely choose against Him, hardening their hearts as they ever choose more against Him so that they can pursue their folly without logic forcing them to confront the truth.
We also above discussed the consequences of sin, which is also relevant here.
What is considered “natural” (verse 28)?
Genesis 2:23-24 and Matthew 19:4-6 make it very clear what God holds to be natural. There is exactly zero wiggle room here.
It is almost amusing how clear the text is. If people would just read this passage in Matthew with an open mind, it inherently rejects all sexual deviance in that it clearly states that God’s intention is that a man and his wife be joined together as one flesh.
In other words, even if we had absolutely no other passages forbidding various forms of sexual sin, Matthew 19:4-6 alone would be sufficient, in that it clearly states what God’s intent is with respect to human sexuality.
I suppose I should note that in Genesis 2:25 and Matthew 19:5 both, the word translated as “wife” also means woman generally. The word is ishsha (Hebrew: אִשָּׁה) in Genesis, and gune (Greek: γυνή) in Matthew.
In both languages, the normal word for woman also means wife. (The same holds true for man/husband—אִישׁ in Hebrew, and ἀνήρ in Greek). To a degree, this shows just how fundamental the concept of marriage is—that linguistically, being a man and being a woman is implicitly connotatively tied to being married. (At least in these two specific languages).
For other usages of these words where “wife” rather than “woman” is definitely in view, you might compare Proverbs 5:15-19; 1 Corinthians 7:2; Ephesians 5:33.
I am bringing all this up mostly since I made such a big deal about how self-evident Matthew 19:4-6 is. If someone were to try to wriggle out of marriage being a requirement on the basis that the word might simply mean any old woman, well technically that could be possible lexically.
But other passages in the Bible make it plenty clear which way we must translate all these passages (i.e., as “wife” rather than just “woman”). For example, Hebrews 13:4.
So I suppose it would more precise to say Matthew 19:4-6 makes everything crystal clear when taken alongside Hebrews 13:4.
What is not proper in God’s eyes (verses 29-31)?
Being filled with every kind of:
Being full of:
- a gossip
- a slanderer
- a God-hater
- an inventor of ways of doing evil
- disobedient to parents
That’s quite the list, is it not? This is not the only place in the New Testament where we have a list of characteristics and behaviors we are told to avoid (e.g., you might also have a look at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Of course, this list is not meant to be completely comprehensive, and not all of the things in this list will always manifest all at the same time. The point is that these are the sorts of things that characterize those who “do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” (Romans 1:28).
I should also note that appearances can be deceiving. Evil masquerades as good, all while putting the truth to death. In our modern day, for example, certain social justice causes claim the moral high ground in their PR campaigning, yet are very much characterized by a lack of “understanding, fidelity, love, and mercy” (Romans 1:31). Unidirectional tolerance (along the lines of “rules for thee but not for me”), demagoguery and purposefully inflammatory rhetoric to stir up hatred and divisions, grandstanding and preening and misrepresentation in front of the media to distort the facts and pervert justice… are these the actions of truth and godliness?
So, the point of bringing this up is that before making up our minds about things, we need to be careful to screen them against this list to see “if the shoe fits.” Sadly, it does a lot more of the time than one might wish—even for people and institutions that the rest of the world holds up as “good.” But we are not to use the world’s standards when we evaluate things, but God’s, and that makes all the difference.
All of this is important for ensuring that we accurately discern the nature of things so that we don’t support that which we ought not, and thereby attach the name of Christ to ungodliness. For we are at all times ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.
What does verse 32 say about the notion of “live and let live”?
“Live and let live” is a popular sentiment in our modern culture. (At least among the younger generation—speaking from my time in college, the idea of “you do you” very much permeated the expected social fabric). Being frustrated by this over-emphasized tolerance, it might be tempting to interpret verse 32’s condemnation of approving evil works as carte blanch for poking our nose into all manner of sinful conduct in the lives of others. After all, if one believes silence implicitly means approval, then we really would have no choice, right? But does it? And what exactly does “silence” (= not speaking up) mean anyway? How does it interact with the concept of “pearls before swine”?
Since a close contextual example here in Romans 1 is homosexuality, let’s use that as an example. If verse 32 calls out not just “doing” such things, but also “approving” of them, that would certainly mean we have no business praising the “braveness” of public figures coming out as gay, attending gay pride events, clapping at speeches that malign traditional marriage between one man and one woman, and so on. All of these things would amount to directly approving of those who practice homosexuality, and therefore run afoul of this verse.
However, it ought to be fairly obvious that not doing these things is decidedly different from doing such things as organizing counter-protests at gay pride events, shouting “turn or burn” at people coming out of gay bars, and things like that. So are we supposed to take action in these ways—is that the only valid way to “not approve”? Some people say so. They say that you are being a cowardly Christian if you don’t inject yourself into unbelievers’ business to tell them what’s what.
They would be wrong. Matthew 7:6 speaks of casting pearls before swine. Put simply, this verse does not instruct us not to share the gospel, but rather commands us to use discernment, and not throw our limited time and effort towards people who have not demonstrated even a shred of receptiveness towards the truth. Some people might decide that there can’t be anything wrong with always continuing to push the gospel anyway—the gospel is always a good thing, right? Except that’s not what the Bible commands. It is wrong to misallocate our time like that.
One does have to be careful not to give up before one even starts. We ought to always season our speech with the salt of the gospel, for example. That general practice is not what we are speaking of. We are speaking of the evangelism equivalent of throwing good money after a bad cause, of failing to choose one’s battles wisely. We need to be responsible and wise in when we choose to press forward, and when we choose to step back and just pray for people rather than trying to forcefully shove the truth down their throats when they obviously aren’t open to it.
I’d like to say this ought to be obvious, but it apparently isn’t, since a large number of self-professed Christians call this very thing we are discussing “evangelism”, when in fact the true sort is much more organic rather than forced, and based upon personal relationships that develop naturally.
In a stroke of irony, at the same time many are far too eager to go around crusading for their set of moral standards out in the world, they completely drop the ball at policing their churches from within. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul makes it clear what our conduct should be when it comes to dealing with the immoral behavior of others. Alongside Matthew 7:6, this passage makes it crystal clear that unbelievers are not ours to correct and police, but God’s. However, those who claim to be brothers in Christ get no such pass. If they claim Christ with their lips but clearly reject His truth in their conduct, we are to throw them out of the Church and refuse to associate with them until they submit to the Lord in repentance. (We need to welcome them back with open arms then, of course, but not before then).
To pull us back, it really depends what one means by “live and let live.” As Christians, we obviously need to not approve of evil (and that is essentially all this verse specifically says). The rest comes down to spiritual discernment. Sometimes we need to speak up and boldly proclaim the truth. But sometimes too we need to take a step back and not force the issue if it is not the right time for a given individual. Perhaps we may have planted seeds that will take root in time. But that is not always for us to know. We can always pray for others, regardless of the circumstances.