28 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.
29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,
30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Each of these ideas bears a close relation to the one that immediately precedes, but they represent a pretty big leap when we compare where Paul begins (his obligation to preach) with where he ends (God making His attributes clearly understood). In other words, support A links to B and then to C, D, and E, but A seems to bear little connection to E. This flow of thought fosters a sense that each piece naturally derives from the one before it. It also allows Paul to move in a different direction subtly, without making one dramatic move. It creates powerful connections that might have seemed more abrupt had he used a more direct approach.
So why is God’s wrath revealed? What is the source of humanity’s ungodliness? They have rejected the created order of things that God set in place from the beginning. This rejection doesn’t just affect humankind; rejecting God’s created order affects God and upsets how He intended things to be. He didn’t create things for our good pleasure, but for His. Paul characterizes this rejection as three different exchanges:
1. the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of mortal beings
2. the truth of God for a lie.
3. natural sexual relations for what is unnatural
Although these are three separate rejections, they all represent an overturning of God’s intended order. Thus, the message of Romans is not simply about the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. Rather, Paul describes a problem confronting all of creation, not just humankind. In Romans 8:22, Paul specifically refers to creation groaning in agony as it awaits the same needed restoration we do. So as you read through the balance of this section, remember that Paul has much more in mind than the universal problem of sin. And as we will see in 2:1, Paul has all people in view here and not just Gentile idolaters.
The people facing God’s impending judgment are those who have perpetrated the disorder. Paul describes them less than objectively in 1:18 as suppressors of God’s truth. How have they suppressed it? Verse 19 states that they have missed what God has made clear about Himself. How is it their fault? Well, God has clearly revealed everything that is knowable about Him. Like what? Verse 20 outlines the attributes He used to reveal Himself, with the result being that these perpetrators are without excuse.
Paul often relates his points to one another as though they are natural consequences of a decision. If you decide on choice A, then you will receive consequence B. Different choices may bring about different results, but Paul typically correlates consequences with a decision. In 1:21, Paul uses a rhetorical question to elicit a pair of contrasting paths. He makes clear that refusing to honor God brings about a negative result, and elicits the possibility that the choice to honor Him would have led to a different outcome.
Since in 1:20 Paul tells us that God has clearly made Himself known by revealing His divine attributes, we cannot blame our separation from God on our lack of knowledge. Rather, the problem stems from our response to the knowledge He gives. Verse 21 is pivotal for understanding this problem. Paul makes clear in 1:21 that although the people knew God, they chose not to honor Him as God and thus rejected His intended order. It’s not as if they misunderstood who He was; in fact, it was quite the opposite. They understood exactly who He was, but refused to honor Him as God (1:21). This initial rejection leads to even worse natural consequences: futile thinking and a darkening of their hearts (1:21).
Paul’s line of reasoning eliminates any possible excuses people might make by highlighting the intentionality behind their rejection of His order. God has clearly revealed Himself to the world in ways no one could miss. The million dollar question is how we will respond to this information. We can choose to honor Him and thank Him, or not. From Paul’s perspective, it’s that simple.