“ . . . the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens” (Genesis 19:24).
That’s what my mind sees when I read about God’s wrath. But the way God reveals his wrath today is quite different—subtle we might say, so much so that we mistake it for just a changing society instead of wrath from heaven.
Paul began this section of his letter (1:18) declaring that God is revealing his wrath against humans who, instead of glorifying him as God of creation, worship images of mortal, created things.
How is God revealing his wrath?
Paul’s first five words in the scripture below, repeated twice more in 1:26,28, give the answer (and are among the most frightening in Scripture) . . .
“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen” (1:24,25).
The original Greek is paradidomee—God handed them over or gave them up to suffer the consequences of worshiping created things instead of the Creator. No restraining. No protecting. God gave them over to what they wanted—and the consequences.
A father hears his son choose a homosexual relationship. Hours of pleading, persuading and warning accomplishes nothing. The father can do nothing but let his son go to satisfy his desires and suffer the consequences.
This, writes Paul, is what God has done. Humans craved what God called sexually unclean rather than seeking God’s glory. So God let them go, knowing they were exchanging the truth that he, the Creator, is glorious and satisfying, for a lie that the creature is more.
For my illustration above, I chose homosexual practice, because Paul does . . .
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (1:26,27).
Because this is what humans craved, God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural. Men forsook natural relations with women and burned in lust for one another. So they suffer in themselves the penalty due them for their perverted behavior, a penalty Paul doesn’t define.
It’s now clear that the “degrading of their bodies” Paul has in mind, indeed all the shameful lust and unnatural behavior, is homosexual behavior. According to Paul, homosexual behavior is not just another lifestyle choice; homosexual behavior is contrary to the nature God created and an expression of God’s wrath, because we exchange the truth about the glory of God for a lie about the glory of the creature.
Why is Paul telling the Roman church about God’s wrath? He wants them to know wrath is why God is revealing his righteousness to powerfully save. He wants them to realize homosexuality, though accepted by their society, is an exchange of God for a lie and to realize that homosexual practice itself is God’s wrath. Finally, he wants them to know escape from God’s wrath is a rescue—God’s power to save.
Paul’s repetitive phrases, “God gave them over”, reflect a downward spiral of immorality/wrath. Here, Paul says, “he gave them over to a depraved mind” . . .
“Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (1:28-32).
“ . . . since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” is the height of self-centered arrogance. They knew God through creation but didn’t think it worthwhile to keep that knowledge.
“ . . . a depraved mind” is a mind so corrupted it no longer provides moral direction. Thus, given over to a depraved mind they “do what ought not to be done.”
No need to define the specific vices a depraved mind produces. To us, some seem hardly depravity (gossips? disobey their parents?), while others do. But in God’s book all are.
The question arises, how do “they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death . . .”? Paul doesn’t explain, but the only answer is “it’s written on their heart, beneath the conscious level. Charles Hodge (a 19th century Presbyterian theologian) said this about that: “The most reprobate sinner carries about with him a knowledge of his just exposure to the wrath of God” (Romans, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972, p. 45).
This is mind-boggling: “they (in Paul’s day, the Gentiles who ‘do what ought not to be done’)” KNOW “God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death.” Yet, they keep doing them and “also approve of those who practice them.” Suicidal.
* * *
Paul was pointing to the Gentile world. I might point my finger for a different reason. I might point a finger of condemnation and moral pride (Paul’s not writing about me! It’s those people!). In chapter 2 Paul will pull the self-righteous rug out from under my feet and in chapter 3 make this damning conclusion: ” . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
Which leads me to ask, “Why did Paul write so much about my guilt and God’s wrath?”
He wants me to see my absolute hopelessness. He wants me to own my guilt. He wants me (to borrow a title of Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon) to realize that I am “a sinner in the hands of an angry God” (here’s the sermon–http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.sinners.html).
So that I will cherish the life-saving gospel, which is . . .
” . . . the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes,
to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith,
as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”