Romans 1:18-32.
Hope for an Apostate World

      Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.

Each generation seems to have its “seminal moment” when a violent event catches the hearts and minds of people all around the world.  For today’s generation, one of these events certainly was the terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Center Complex and Washington DC on the morning of September 11, 2001.  For many, each anniversary will be a day of remembering the horror of this event, one of those few events that stand as milestones in one's life.  Most milestones one experiences are positive:  marriage, the birth of a child, a graduation from a school or university.  However, human history is full of milestones that are not so positive:  events that have been initiated by the hate and sin of evil humanity.  We see in our world a pattern of natural violence that knows no bounds short of those found by those who have trusted in God.  That is, when people live outside of the moral life that is characterized by those who are obedient to God, there is no limit to the expression of their sin.  The world of unrighteousness is truly a dangerous and evil place.

It is into this world of evil that Paul was immersed as he engaged in his work of apostleship:  taking the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who were lost.  Some might argue that with the birth of Christ the age of faith began, and prior to that point people could not be "saved" because Jesus had not yet died for their sins.  However, this position disregards the Lordship and Deity of Christ, the Messiah, the person of God who is both Creator[1] and Judge.[2]  Jesus, through His sacrifice on the Cross, served as the Lamb of God, paying the sin debt for all who place their faith and trust in God.  The scriptures are clear that Jesus' atonement was for all people, not just a select few, or for those in one particular historical era.  Because of this the writer of Hebrews can proclaim the righteousness of Abraham[3] and others who, like those today, find salvation through faith and trust in God.  The salvation of Abraham and other people who lived prior to the ministry of Christ is difficult for some to accept.  How could Abraham be saved when he never heard the "name" of Jesus?  Actually, Abraham did hear the name of Jesus.  

Jesus' "name" represents all of who He is, including the Messiah, Creator and Judge, a person of the Holy Trinity.  He is God, and in the person of Jesus came to mankind to fully reveal Himself and His purpose.  However, God's revelation of himself to mankind did not start with Jesus.  We see in the early Genesis narratives the dynamic communications that God had with man through Adam and Eve.  When one steps out of the pages of historical theology and into the pages of historical anthropology we see a similar truth:  there is no culture of humans who did not express some form of religion.  God created mankind for a purpose:  that He might have a relationship with His creation, and He created Man "in His image," and by that spiritual nature, able to recognize and respond to Him.  Consequently, God did not create the universe and then simply stand back and watch.  God has been continually revealing Himself and His purpose to mankind, predominantly through the speaking of the Holy Spirit through people's hearts, and most evidently in the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, and finally through the Son, Jesus Christ through whom God's purpose has been fully revealed. 

Romans 1:18.  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

When mankind is left without any controls, it is a universal truth that anarchy and violence will break out.  We in America have recently seen evidence of this when Hurricane Katrina wiped out the government infrastructure of New Orleans.  The police and government officials evacuated the city and left behind a culture of violent people who hoped to loot the city.  The anarchy escalated to the point that people looted the gun shops and violence broke out throughout the flooded city.  The violence was quelled only when National Guard troops were brought in a few days after the flood.  The naturally sinful state of mankind is a given: man's base choice is for unrighteousness.  Paul illustrated this when he stated that “all have sinned and come short of God's glory.”[4]

God is a Holy and Righteous God, and stands firmly against all unrighteousness.  Paul's letter to the Romans is the longest and most detailed of his doctrinal letters.  He chooses to start his doctrinal presentation with this issue:  God has been revealing Himself to mankind, standing against unrighteousness.  When Paul looked around he saw a religious people who were immersed in sin.  Any cursory study of anthropology will reveal that this pattern is true for all human cultures throughout all time.  Every culture has innately known that there is a God, and came up with some system or systems of religion that service their inquiry of Him.  Most cultures were (and are) pagan in nature, and apostate in religion.  For the purposes of this study, apostasy is the act of turning one's back on, or abandoning, the One True God.  We see this process when we study the history of ancient Israel who abandoned God to follow the pagan religions of the world culture within which they were immersed.  It is this same pagan world culture that is still prevalent today.  There is no shortage of religion amongst any of the world cultures.  However, most do not worship the one True God, and by separating themselves from God, remain apostate and unrighteous.  Consequently, there is no shortage of violence and hatred in this world.

The key point we see here is simply that God has been revealing Himself to those who have been seeking God, or "a god" in order to reconcile their need for Him.  Furthermore, He has revealed that He is a Righteous and True God who stands for that which is good (or godly) and against that which is evil.  No human culture has ever failed to understand the contrast between good and evil, and such knowledge goes back to the early Genesis narrative of the sin of Eve and Adam.  God has made His position clear.  It is the sin-bent heart of mankind that has turned away from Him.

Paul also describes those who "hold the truth" in unrighteousness.  When we look at the religious world culture, we also find those who have heard of the One True God and espouse Him as God, but present Him in their own lives and to others in an unrighteous manner.  Because of their sin-nature and their failure to place their faith and trust in Him, they use the context of religion to advance their own personal agenda, often in order to attain recognition, power, wealth, or some other personal advantage.  Such people have tremendous control over those who follow their leadership, and the damage they do to the kingdom of God on earth is inestimable.  Recent examples of those who hold the truth in unrighteousness may be thought of in fraternity of Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Marshall Applewhite, each leading their subjects to their deaths.  However, those who exercise murder and violence in the "name of religion" is a far more prevalent and destructive example.  Paul states that God's wrath towards the unrighteous is no secret, and even those who exercise sin in the name of religion are subject to that wrath: a nature that will be fulfilled when God separates those who embrace unrighteousness from Himself for eternity.

Romans 1:19.  Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them.

It might be easy for us to look at the sinful nature of people and rationalize away their behavior, thinking that they do not know God, nor do they know the difference between good and evil.  Considering the state of a small, isolated society in some remote corner of the world, we might argue that "they do not know any better."  One of the most religious indigenous cultures in history were the Aztecs, natives of Central America during the 13th through the 15th centuries.  Immersed in their worship of a pantheon of gods, they were a brutal and bloody people.  Their chief God was a god of war.  They were so far removed from what we would consider main-stream religion that we might argue that they simply did not know better.  The Aztecs serve as an example of the real world culture that seeks religious expression, yet bases their life- and world-view on worldly, secular, and pagan values.  Despite their ignorance, they like all of humanity do know the difference between good and evil, and deep in their heart of hearts know that God is the One True God, and that He is Good.  God has showed this to all people, communicating His message to them in a variety of ways.  Those who are engaged in modern Bible study have a tremendous advantage, as we have the written Word of God to complement what God is speaking through our hearts.  However, even without the written Word, and without the testimony of other faithful people, God still speaks to the hearts of all people, making Himself "manifest in them," revealing to them His true nature.

Romans 1:20.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

It has always been the nature of mankind to attribute anything they did not understand to the action of a god.  It has been only during the last few centuries that humanity has begun to understand many of the basic scientific principles and properties of this universe.  Until then, people had simply assigned a god to each of the universal properties they did not understand.  Early examples are sun gods (Ra, of Egypt) that explained the power of the sun, rain gods that brought rain, fertility gods that empowered reproduction, and many others.  These gods were the mechanism by which people explained "the invisible things" to one another.  However, Paul states that those invisible things that the pagan culture attributed to their pantheon of gods, are clearly seen as evidence of the eternal power of the One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: the God who created the universe and will some day bring about its violent and just end.  Those who have created such pantheons of gods, as well as those who have rejected the True God, stand in their rebellion against God without excuse.  God has revealed enough about Himself to every person that they have the capacity to recognize Him, and to turn to Him in faith.

Romans 1:21.  Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

Though God has revealed his true Nature to mankind, it has not been God who has been honored.  Instead, mankind has always usurped the authority of God, replacing it with their own.  Rather than honor God, we always choose to lift up ourselves, declaring that we are the ones who hold the keys to the truth.  Paul refers to "vain imaginations," the powerless litany of explanations we come up with to attribute God's existence and purpose to everything but Him.  In modern, elitist western culture, God has been explained away with the tenets of rationalization and secular humanism.  Such a position elevates man and his own mind to the authority of God, while rejecting God, His purposes, and His plan for mankind.  The leaders of these and other secular and pagan philosophies consider themselves wise.  They fully believe that they have all of the answers to explain both the "invisible things," as well as the visible.  In their arrogance they lift themselves up above others as they wander around in the darkness of their true rebellion against God.  With hardened hearts they fully reject God, despise those who seek to be obedient to Him, and consider those who do to be ignorant and "unenlightened."  As God is the author of the true Light of the gospel of peace, Satan is the author of the enlightenment of chaos. 

Romans 1:22-23.  Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.

Any time we replace God with any form of our own choosing or imagination, we settle for something infinitely less than Him.  By reducing God to a created image, whether it be characterized by man or beast, we foolishly transfer the honor and glory that God deserves to something else.  Man has long worshipped objects of this world, and even objects of his own making.  By focusing on something so far less than God, and by creating our own gods, we create our own answers to questions concerning those "invisible things," and no longer seek the truth.  Instead of seeking God, who is real and accessible, we worship the likes of the ancient Indian sage, Buddha, immerse ourselves in his teaching, and rub his belly for good luck.  We worship our ancestors; we worship cows; we worship cars.  We give spiritual authority to everything other than the one True Authority, all the time thinking that we are the only one in the world who has the one true answer to the mysteries of life.  Buddha was considered wise.  Nations who worshipped their leaders thought they were wise.  Proponents of worldly philosophies today think of themselves as the embodiment of true wisdom.  Yet, by rejecting the One True God, they have all, without exception, chosen the foolish path that will separate themselves from the peace and love of God for eternity, exchanging God's love for Satan's rebellion.  Satan is the king of fools: those who's folly will ultimately and tragically be revealed at the judgment seat of Christ.

Romans 1:24-25.  Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: 25Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.  Amen. 

What happens when one exchanges the glory of the incorruptible God for an image of men's creation?  For a rare few, their pagan deities are defined as demanding ascetism (the legalistic practice of the abstinence from physical pleasure) and high moral standards.  However, for most, the rejection of God leads to quite the opposite:  the quest for self-gratification.  No religion, no society, and no culture can truly shape the desires of an individual's heart.  Consequently, it is impossible to legislate morality.  We can, as a culture, declare murder to be illegal, but that does not stop murder.  Only God, through the Holy Spirit, can lead a person's heart towards righteousness.  When one rejects that leading, there is no control over the expression of sin in a person's life, whether they ascribe to an ascetic religion or to the atheism of the violent streets.  Freed of control, any behavior that satisfies one's desires is practiced.  The lifestyle of the apostate is characterized by the fruit of apostasy: unrighteous behavior.  Paul immediately points to the power of lust in one's heart, and how those who reject God immerse themselves in their own desires, dishonoring themselves by their behavior.  There is no question that Paul is making an inference here to immorality both in thought and in physical expression, as he refers to the dishonoring of "their own bodies between themselves."  Together they share in their lusts, and together they satiate their lusts through destructive, immoral behavior.  The extent of their rebellion against God is so complete that Paul states that God "gave them up" to their immorality.  Though no person is past the point of the potential for salvation, God does not chase down and tackle the unrighteous in an effort to make them repent.  Consequently, while immersed with their hard hearts in their lifestyle of immorality, they simply cannot repent, and so they cannot be saved.  God knows the rebellion of their heart, and allows them to make their own choices: behaviors that will keep them immersed in satan's[5] gruesome folly for eternity.

Those who live apart from God have exchanged the truth for a lie.  They rationalize that lie in their hearts until they are fully satisfied that their chosen religion or lifestyle is normative and appropriate behavior.  They base their rationalizations upon their observation and acceptance of that which is part of this creation, rather than upon the One who created it.  They worship the stars instead of the One who created the stars, the One who is truly worthy of honor and glory.  Accepting much less as the authority of their lives, they are free to define normative behavior by their own standards, standards which fall short of God's purposes for man.  The result is disastrous. 

Romans 1:26-27.  For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.

We see a second inference of how God "gave them up" to their unrighteous behaviors, and he clarifies one of them that was common in his culture, and is still common today:  homosexuality.  The practice of homosexuality has been a galvanizing example of ungodly behavior throughout history.  During the formation of the early church, the Greeks and Romans exercised the predominant influence over pagan culture.  Each of these celebrated homosexuality, and the sexual abuse of children, particularly young boys.  Consequently, this was a very predominant issue in Paul's day.  The Greeks raised homosexuality between adults and between men an boys to the level of a religion.  Their predominant philosophies were designed to rationalize the satiation of their own base desires, so such behavior was declared both normative and laudable.  Casual observation of Greek writing and art, particularly in their sculpture, reveals their exercise of pornographic behavior.  This spilled over into Roman culture where homosexuality also be came a normative and accepted behavior.  Many historians have argued that is was homosexuality that compromised the fighting power of the Roman army, ushering in the replacement of the Roman Empire with the Vatican empire.  It is no surprise that Paul first brings to the front of his examples of ungodly behavior the practice of homosexuality.

It is also no surprise that this subject still holds so much controversy today.  Those who practice homosexuality have chosen for themselves a lifestyle and behavior that Paul describes as a "vile affection" that will ultimately result in a "recompense" for their error.  God created man, and man makes his own choices.  Paul describes the practice as a "vile affection", or the practice of a "wicked desire."  One chooses to pervert the expression of sexual desire as easily as one perverts the expression of any other behavior, and when one is unbound by a desire for obedience to God, vile expression becomes normative.  The conflict arises today when the church, the body of believers, fails to take a stand on the issue, and fails to define what is godly behavior.  Afraid of criticism and the loss of members, the church has begun to embrace the homosexual lifestyle in a manner similar to the Greeks the Romans, and the church of the dark ages.  It is one thing for the lost to exchange the truth for a lie, and it is quite another for the church to follow this error. 

There will be churches today who refuse to acknowledge these two little verses (and others in scripture that decry the sin of homosexuality), favoring their acceptance by a pagan and apostate society.  By so doing, we begin to follow the error of the ancient Jews as they exchanged their faith for pagan practices.  By immersing themselves in the world culture (which included prostitution and homosexuality), the ancient Jews lost any opportunity to serve their original purpose, which was to proclaim God to a lost world.  The church is in grave danger of doing the same when it also immerses itself in this pagan culture and begins to rationalize its sinful behavior as acceptable, or even normative.  Liberal New Testament churches today are ordaining practicing homosexuals to the level of priesthood, and even some of the more conservative churches are baptizing practicing homosexuals.  The signs of Christian apostasy are everywhere.

Romans 1:28.  And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

The practice of homosexuality is not the only characteristic of an unrighteous apostate.  Paul only starts his list with this practice.  We see a third example of how God "gave them over" to "a reprobate mind," one that declares normative that which is not "convenient."  That last word is a translation of a far more emphatic representation of debauchery.  Basically, they have affirmed their minds to reprobate choices, and by so doing have turned their backs on God, preferring to ignore Him and His plan and purpose.  As a result, they practice behaviors that are "inconvenient," practices that are declarations of their hatred of God, practices that characterize their choice for eternal separation from Him.  Again, homosexuality is only one such practice, though its destructive influence is so pervasive that Paul specifically focuses on it as an example of an ungodly and destructive lifestyle that many have rationalized as normative.

Romans 1:29-32.  Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

Once one has turned their back on God, and rationalized away His command for purity, there is no limit to the possibilities for the expression of sin.  When we look at this list, we simply see the characteristic of a society that has found pleasure in the expression of any sin.  We may visualize a Sodom or a Gomorrah.  However, what we observe here is really a list of the behaviors that characterize the expression of the base desires of the sinful heart.  Paul closes this list with an important statement:  not only do they do these things, they take pleasure in their practice.  That is, they experience no regret, and feel no need for forgiveness or repentance.  This is an important issue in light of the fact that Christians still find themselves guilty of sinful attitudes and practices.  One who has truly given their heart to the Lord cannot sin without regret.  The Holy Spirit resides in the heart of every true believer, and His nature is to convict the believer of their sinful practices.  The Holy Spirit is always calling the "backslidden" Christian to come home to the peace and joy that is always realized in obedience to God.  A sinning Christian exchanges that peace and joy for turmoil and chaos.  The unregenerate apostate to which Paul refers to here experiences no such conflict.  The homosexual can practice his perversion without remorse.  The wicked rejoice in their own wickedness.

Paul paints an extremely dark picture when he describes the state of mankind in this world.  He sees a world where, as the writer of Genesis describes, there is "darkness over the face of the deep."[6]  Paul should know: he lived a lifestyle of rebellion against God as he embraced the practices of pharisaical Judaism and persecuted Christians, even to their deaths.  Paul has experienced the conversion from a godless, self-centered, prideful and violent spirit, to one that has turned to Jesus Christ in true faith.  Paul has experienced both repentance from his sinful choices, and forgiveness for the acts of rebellion he so clearly remembers.  As Paul again stated, "all have sinned and come short of God's glory," and he counts himself as no more laudable in his sinful life as those who he has been describing in this opening to his letter to the Romans.  Paul referred to himself as the "chief of sinners."[7]

Is there no hope for the apostate?  The basic message that Paul brings in his letter to the Romans is that there is hope, and he considers his own life an example of that hope.  At this point in his letter he has not yet completed his description of the sinful state of man.  However, after this discussion, Paul then presents God's plan for the redemption of sinful man.  There is hope.  Though the punishment for the apostate is eternal separation from God (the true and final definition of death), Paul will clearly show that God's love for mankind is so great that He provided a way for salvation, a way that is his own gift for humanity:  a way of salvation that can be found through Jesus Christ.[8]   God so loved the world that He came as the Son, who paid the penalty that awaits the apostate, that whoever would place their faith and trust in Him would not perish but find salvation: everlasting life with God.  Yes, there is hope for the apostate.  The task of communicating God's grace to the reprobate mind is a difficult one, but with God, all things are possible. 

[1] John 1:1-14.

[2] 2 Timothy 4:1.

[3] Hebrews, Chapter 11.

[4] Romans 3:23.

[5] The name of satan is not capitalized in this study as a subtle way of minimizing the respect given him.

[6] Genesis 1:2.

[7] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[8] Romans 6:23.