Therefore, God gave them up… God gave them up… God gave them up. —Romans 1:24, 26, 28
This is a hard passage. It’s hard to read, hard to hear, hard to understand, hard to accept. And there’s a reason why. The reason is, it’s hard for us to see ourselves. It’s painful to see what we’ve made of ourselves. Then add to that the words “God gave them up,” and it’s terrifying. So why is Paul saying this? He’s not rubbing our faces in it. He’s not gloating. He’s not whining about the direction society is going. What is Paul accomplishing here? He is getting us ready to be surprised by God’s grace. And he’s making it clear that anyone can be a part of the beauty God is creating in this world today. Everyone is disqualified; therefore, anyone can be included. If you see yourself somewhere in this picture here in Romans 1, that grace is already touching you. But if you can’t see yourself here, if all you see is how this applies to someone else, you don’t need grace. You deserve congratulations – sort of.
Wouldn’t it be great for every single one of us to stop wasting God’s time and face the truth? And here is the truth: God is God, I am not God, and he deserves my all. God has no reason to apologize to you and me. But we have a lot to answer for, and we have no excuses. God is in the right, and we don’t have a leg to stand on. Can we admit that? Or are we too proud? If we are, we’ll go on and on in our sadness. God will let us go further and further. But if we’ll stop being so stiff and self-righteous and defensive and self-protective and cautious, as if God were a threat, if we’ll soften and bend and admit our needs before him, not superficially but bluntly – I’m not saying it’s easy, I know it’s hard, it’s hard for me – but if we’ll set all excuses aside and say to him, “All right, help me see myself. Show me who I really am. Show me who you really are” – when we get real with him, he makes his grace real to us. It’s a wonderful new beginning.
God wants to do a new work in your heart today. Don’t try to re-create an important experience from your past. Don’t try to borrow someone else’s experience. God wants you. He wants to show you his glory. He wants to set your conscience free. If you’re afraid, that’s okay. If you’re weak, that’s okay. If you’re guilty, that’s okay. Christ loves you as you are. He is unshockable. He died a violent death at the hands of sinners desperately afraid of the truth. But he defeated our evil by absorbing it into his own suffering at the cross. Then he rose up from it all. And now he’s moving among us today, offering himself not as our Judge but as our Counsel of defense, if we will only let him. We read Romans 1 and we can’t accept ourselves, but he accepts us. We can’t understand ourselves, but he understands us. The gospel was born in violence and blood and rage and death. It can stand up to any sin we confess today. If we will only come before God with our defenses down and listen to him, that’s when our hearts finally crack open and we experience a love we don’t even believe exists. Here’s the only deal-breaker with him – pretending to be better than we really are. He offers his mercy only to guilty people who have no excuses left. So let’s have the courage to look honestly at the Bible and open ourselves to God today.
Last week we saw that the good news begins with bad news. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against the whole world. The outrage God will never accept is that we suppress the obvious. What is obvious? That God is there, and God is amazing. Living in this universe God made, being who we are in God’s image, we cannot not know that God is there, and God is amazing. But we do deny it. We make God small in our thoughts. We don’t want to make room for who God really is. We don’t glorify him or thank him. We construct our own reality, featuring our own designer gods who never say No to us – our little preferences and souvenir sins and self-righteous resentments and a low-cost mini-Christianity with no cross and no crown. We don’t value the awesome God who is actually there, and obviously there. We exchange him in our lives for created things we can control, small gods letting us live small lives. And the real God of glory is offended. We saw this last week.
Today we see how the wrath of God actually works in universal human experience. We imagine the wrath of God falling on Sodom and Gomorrah, but where do we see the wrath of God today? Paul explains in three steps: degraded bodies (24-25), distorted sexuality (26-27), destroyed community (28-32). Three times in Romans 1 Paul says we made a foolish exchange (23, 25, 26). How did the world get to where we are now? Not by accident. Not by fate. We made a choice – and in spite of the obvious. We traded the Glorious One for our own little lies. Every one of us has done it, wanting our own wish to be the truth. So what did God do? Three times Paul says, “God gave them up” (24, 26, 28). In other words, God let us run with it. God gave us what we wanted. We can defy God, but we can’t escape the consequence of defying him. We cannot shut God out and also retain control of where our lives go from there. And when we find ourselves asking, “How did I ever get here?”, let’s pay attention to that question. And Paul’s answer is not simply, “We’ve sinned.” In fact, the word “sin” doesn’t even appear here. Notice that? Paul will get around to that later. But in this passage all he has to do, to answer the question, “How did we ever arrive here?” – all he does is describe the workings of sin, how sin lies to us, how sin behaves, how it demands and destroys, because the powers of sin are the wrath of God at work. In Romans 1 Paul is not asking us to believe a doctrine as much as he’s getting us to look around and see what we see. He is completely non-sentimental, completely reality-based, as our tour guide into the human condition. He’s saying here, “You don’t have to take my word for it. Just open your eyes. Do you see? Now let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s find out what’s happening to us. Let’s find out where God is in all this. Then we’ll be ready for healing.” And here’s the scary part. Where is God? Active in wrath. Three times – “God gave them up.” Here is where the gospel starts in Romans 1: If God is against us, who can be for us? Here is where the gospel takes us in Romans 8: If God is for us, who can be against us? Our deepest problem is not our sins. Our deepest problem is God. And he’s not going away. Whatever else may happen, God will be true to himself. But here’s the good news: God has created a way for sinners to escape from God. We run from his wrath by running to his grace. At the cross, God satisfied his own wrath. Now we can go back to God, as we are in all our evil and stupidity and sadness, and find mercy. “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” God has made God our salvation, and he is ready to give himself to us today.
Again, the question in our passage for today is, What do we need to understand about God and about ourselves, so that his grace starts making an impact? Let’s think it through together.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. —Romans 1:24-25
What does the word “lust” mean? Not just sexual feelings. The NIV refers here to “sexual impurity.” But the word “sexual” is not in Paul’s text. It’s bigger than that. Paul is talking about all kinds of abuses of our bodies. We need to know how it happens. How can it happen, especially here in a culture that idealizes the body and health and beauty and youth, that we end up dishonoring the body? The word “dishonoring” in verse 24 connects back with “they did not honor him as God” in verse 21. When we dishonor God, we end up dishonoring ourselves, even our bodies. When we say No to God and Yes to our appetites, it doesn’t work. But the problem is not in our bodies; the problem is deep in our hearts: “God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts.” Our hearts lie to us. When we turned from God to pursue pleasure, here is what we never thought would happen. We never dreamed we would become trapped in an emotional world of our own selfish, miserable, petty, shortsighted impulses. Those are “the lusts” of our hearts. It’s not about hormones. It’s our desires within running in overdrive. Our outward behavior is floating on the stormy surface of our raging desires within. And so many of our desires are for good things. God can satisfy them. Only God can satisfy them. But when we choose the creation over the Creator and tell ourselves, “I want this over here, and I’ll go so far with it, but no further,” we soon discover it isn’t that simple. Our hearts take us further and further, getting us to do things that dishonor us.
Sin is insulting. But God likes our bodies. He made them, and for honor. But for example, an athlete destroys his very athleticism by taking steroids. His lust to win is a choice against God, and it gets him injuring the instrument with which he competes. Or a young woman dresses and behaves immodestly, because she desires attention and she knows her body has power, but that desire takes her where she doesn’t want to go. Every one of us has dishonored the body in some way. It’s time to go back and offer God our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). His gospel promises include our bodies: “The Lord Jesus Christ will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Only God can do that. And he will. God is the best fitness expert in the universe. If you are in Christ, you’re going to be fresh and clean and young again – like the risen Jesus. Drug abuse, self-starvation, cutting, whatever you’ve done – God has made a promise to your body. He’s going to give you everything back forever, if you’ll accept Christ. Did you know that “accepting Jesus as your Savior” includes a cool body?
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. —Romans 1:26-27
Is Paul picking on homosexuals? Is he singling them out for embarrassment? No. He is not saying that homosexuals are worse than others. If we think Paul is dumping on homosexuals, we’ve completely missed his point. His point throughout the passage is the evil all of us share together. What is the root-sin underneath every other sin? We don’t want God to be God over us; we want to be our own gods. And God refuses to accept that. He refuses to accept our excuses, because he made the truth obvious. Paul has been making that case, as we’ve seen. Every time I sin, I am defying reality – that God is God, I am not God, and he deserves my all. But we don’t see how unnatural our self-exalting hearts are. So Paul helps us. As he looks around the world, where does he find a clear illustration of the unnaturalness that our hearts prefer? Where can we see the falsehood we’re all involved in, in so clear a case that we don’t even need the red flashing light of the Bible to alert us? Paul says, “Look at homosexual behavior.” That doesn’t happen to be my own sin, and it may not be yours. But Paul’s point is radical – the unnaturalness of homosexuality makes clear the unnaturalness of every sin. That’s why Paul has us looking at homosexuality.
What we’ve got to understand is that the whole human race every day is busy exchanging the truth about God for a lie. How do we see that? Here’s one way. We create an alternative reality through alternative lifestyles. But a man having sex with a man – it’s not natural. That’s clear, because a man and a woman fit. Everyone knows that. Everyone got here that way. How on earth did we start confusing men with women? Here’s how. We chose to become confused about God and ourselves. That’s an unnatural act. We’re all involved in it.
By the way, what Paul wrote here was controversial even back in his time. The classical world accepted homosexuality. Read the Symposium by Plato. It’s the record of a conversation between Socrates and his drinking buddies at a party one night. And they go around the room philosophizing about the beauty of love, which they assume is homosexual. They didn’t feel it was unnatural, just as many people today don’t. But when an obviously unnatural act feels natural – that is one strand in the whole tangle of universal human falsehood suppressing the glory of God. If God’s glory is not the center of your life, your life is just as much a denial of nature as is homosexuality. And can any of us say, “Not me. I have an excuse”?
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. —Romans 1:28
Paul is not talking about intellectual acknowledgement only. He’s talking about the human will saying, “We don’t want God around. What use is he? How is he relevant? How is he helpful? His approval ratings are at an all-time low. And why not? Look at the suffering in the world. Look at the religious wars in history. Look at the church. They can’t even agree on the Bible. How can there be one true religion anyway? It’s just a way of empowering one group over another. And look at my sorry life. What has God done for me lately?” Human minds bristle with hostility toward God. But our anger doesn’t stop with God; it always explodes at other people. When our hearts are in attack-mode toward God, we destroy more than religion; we destroy community. When the vertical isn’t working, the horizontal rips itself apart. And we can’t think our way or philosophize our way or research our way out of it. God has given the human race over to a debased mind. The human mind thinks up more evil. Smart people come up with worthless ideas that are just asking for trouble. That’s what Paul’s describing in verses 29-32 – the hatred and war and shouting and backstabbing and brutality that by now is just normal life in this world. And we haven’t reached the bottom yet, because debased minds, however brilliant, cannot understand why their genius isn’t working. We need Christ to instruct our minds.
Let me conclude in a practical way. Is your life working? I’m not asking you if believe a certain doctrine. Let’s be practical. Is your life working? Are you flourishing? Are you in a wonderful growth-mode taking you into a newness of life only God can give? Or are you deeply disappointed with yourself? There is something in your life you need to face – suppressing the truth, not thanking God, exchanging the glory of God for lesser things, envy, strife, gossip, disobedience, or something else? “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, . . .” (verse 32). See that phrase “deserve to die”? Get ready for a shock. God put himself in that position for you. His wrath is the first word of the gospel, but not the last word, thank God. His wrath is real and terrible. We can see it at work. But his grace is greater – and wonderfully at work. He not only looks down in wrath, he also came down in grace. He identified with us so deeply that at the cross he who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21). The innocent one became, in the sight of God and for the sake of others, the one who deserved to die. And the inventory of sins in Romans 1, the backlog of sins in your life – Christ took onto himself the guilt and hell of it all. Here is where your life starts working again. Here is where the wrath of God goes away and the smile of God becomes yours. It’s at the cross, where you soften and bend and bow and admit the truth about yourself, the whole truth, including that one secret in your life you’re most ashamed of and afraid of. Will you give it to Christ? He is willing to take it. He doesn’t want you to bear it one moment longer. Let him have it, and he promises to take it far away, and he’ll never bring it up again. He will set your conscience free. It begins at the cross. Believe it, and receive it.