In Romans 1 Paul lays out one of the clearest expositions of the gospel’s implications. In verse 16 he writes, “
I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Paul then moves on to talk about the righteousness of God that comes through the gospel (Romans 1:17). However, he recognizes that if he is going to talk about the good news, he first needs to talk about the bad news; we cannot really appreciate the good news until we understand how bad the bad news really is. This understanding is why he moves from righteousness revealed to wrath revealed (Romans 1:18). For Paul, God’s wrath is a present1 reality. It is the experience of the outworking of his handing people over to their sinful behavior (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).2 God’s wrath is therefore justified because of the ungodly and unrighteous acts people commit.3
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
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.
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.
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. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 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. (Romans 1:18–32)
In the immediate context of Romans 1:18–32, Paul specifically focuses on the idolatry of the pagan world resulting from their suppression of God’s revelation in creation. What Paul is teaching us in Romans 1 is central to our current apologetic argument for the existence of God. It is also imperative for understanding the reason that people reject God’s existence and the consequences that flow from their rejection. In Romans 1, Paul uses Genesis 1–3 in a very specific way, applying it to the pagan cultures of his own day, which bear a striking resemblance to our Western culture now. In Romans 1, we can see Paul using Genesis 1–3 as he develops what pagans do in their response to God’s revelation of himself in creation. He records three very specific exchanges:
These are fundamental areas of human existence. Each of these areas display an exchange of the truth for “the lie.”
1. Creation (Romans 1:18–21)
Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.
This was the reply of Bertrand Russell, the famous English atheist philosopher, when asked what he would say after death if God asked why Russell had not believed in him. While Russell believed he could charge God with not providing enough evidence for his existence, this goes against the apostle Paul’s argument that human beings already know God exists through his revelation in creation, so no one has an excuse. This includes all people living in all places and all times.4
As Christians, we must realize that theology, from the exegesis of Scripture, should drive our apologetics for the existence of God. Unfortunately, for many Christians, it is philosophy that drives their theology. For example, in Christian apologetics today, it is common for Christians to defend the existence of God by arguing something like the following: the majority of the evidence points to the greater probability for the existence of God,” without using Scripture at all in their defense. Again, this is because many Christians think that if we give people enough evidence for God, they will be convinced. The problem with this idea is that the unbeliever by virtue of their unbelief will take the evidence and interpret it according to their unbelief (see Acts 17:23). The problem is not the evidence but what people will do with the evidence. Evidence only has value when God uses it to clear the ground of unbelief.
In Romans 1:18, Paul states that God’s wrath is revealed against the ungodly and unrighteous who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” This suppression of the truth is that which can be known about God in creation. The reason men can suppress the truth is that they are creatures of God, made in his image (Genesis 1:26–27) and because of his clear witness in creation.
When people suppress the truth, they become “futile in their thinking.”
When people suppress the truth, they become “futile in their thinking.”5 As Christians, we need to keep in mind the theological reality that God is our Creator and that man in his inherent sin nature is in active rebellion against him. Therefore, we cannot base our apologetic methodology on the assumption that fallen man will make unbiased decisions on the existence of God, because he will not do that.6 Unbelievers are not in a neutral position when it comes to the existence of God. God’s creatures have no right in judging their Creator or his existence.
Today, just as in Paul’s day, some people will say that we are ignorant fools or narrow minded if we believe that God created the world. Yet, those who do not hold to the view that God created the world and that we are creatures of God are not thinking rationally but irrationally, even foolishly, (see Psalm 14:1) and are doing that in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18–19). The naturalistic worldview will ultimately end in irrationality,7 because they have sinfully taken the truth about God’s world and convinced themselves that it is not true. In verse 19, Paul states that “what may be known of God is manifest in them.” This knowledge of God has not slipped out of their minds, but they make it happen by repressing it and exchanging the truth for “the lie” (Romans 1:25 (NKJV)). This means that unbelievers have a relationship with God, but it is not a good one. The fact is that every person has some kind of relationship with God. People are either related to God in Christ by grace or related to God in Adam according to wrath (Romans 5:12–19; 1 Corinthians 15:22). In that relationship, we are defined according to how we stand before God.8
Moreover, this knowledge is manifest9 in them because God has “shown it to them” by the things that have been made (revelation in creation). People have been able to understand God’s revelation of himself since the very beginning of his creation (see Acts 14:15–17; Acts 17:18–31). The words “the creation of the world” (ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου), as in other New Testament texts (Mark 10:6; 1 John 1:1, 2:13–14),10 refer to the beginning of the creation week in Genesis 1. Paul is saying that God’s revelation of himself through creation has been clear since the creation week in Genesis 1, which refutes an evolutionary or long-age view of creation since man is as old as the rest of creation.
The truth that Paul says is being suppressed is Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
2. Spirituality (Romans 1:22–25)
The suppression of God’s revelation in creation results in two consequences. The first consequence is idolatry, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:23, 25). In the Bible there is no charge more serious than that of idolatry because it is the ultimate expression of unfaithfulness to God (Leviticus 26:27–33; Numbers 33:51–56; Isaiah 40:18–19, 42:8, 44:9–20). The Bible illustrates idolatry in many different ways. The prophet Hosea describes it is as prostitution (Hosea 4:10–14), and God tells Samuel that the rejection of God’s Kingship is idolatry (1 Samuel 8:7–9). Idolatry is not just the carving of something out of wood or stone, but it is also the pursuit of anything in this world other than the glory of the one true and living God (see Philippians 3:19; Colossians 3:5). The Bible describes idolatry in such terms because it declares there to be only one God and besides him there is no other god, so it is foolish to trust in other deities (Isaiah 43:11, 44:6, 45:5). More to the point, the idols that pagans worship as gods “by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8; cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4–5; Acts 19:26), for the attribute that Scripture most often uses to separate God from all other “deities” is that of creating (Isaiah 40:28, 42:5; Jeremiah 10:11–12; Psalm 96:4–5); he alone created everything (Isaiah 44:24). Idolatry frequently begins in the human mind (Habakkuk 2:18–19; Romans 1:21), and we must remember that even Christians still have the capacity to commit idolatry if we do not allow Scripture to renew our minds (Romans 12:2).
In verse 25 Paul tells us that “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” Some suggest that the “they” here is an allusion to Adam and Eve.11 Of course, in context, “they” is extended to an unbelieving humanity, but there is something in it that Paul uses to refer to the original creation account where Adam and Eve were tempted that they could become like God.
Because of mankind’s fallen nature, the truth of God’s revelation is held down and suppressed.
It is also important to notice that Paul speaks about “the lie” and not “a lie” as the Greek text contains the definite article (to pseudei—τῷ ψεύδει). Paul may also be referring to the original lie in Genesis 3 and not just any old falsehood. The Apostle John also describes Satan as the “father of lies” who was a murderer “from the beginning” (John 8:44). The words “from the beginning” take us back to Genesis 3 and to the original lie. Again, in verse 25, Paul’s reference to the worship and service of the creature is an exchange that has come from mankind’s once having dominion over the creature (cf. Genesis 1:28) to now worshipping and serving them.
The worship and service of the creature (i.e., idolatry), then, is a consequence: 1) God’s revelation 2) suppression of that revelation. God has clearly revealed himself in creation; therefore, no one is “without excuse” for not believing in his existence. Because of mankind’s fallen nature, the truth of God’s revelation is held down and suppressed. The suppression of that revelation ultimately expresses itself in idolatry. In an attempt to capture the essence of human fallenness, John Calvin wrote that man is a “maker of idols”:
Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols…The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity.12
Idolatry is a subjective response to objective divine revelation, which only has negative consequences:
sin → suppression of the truth → exchange for idolatry → darkness → guilt = God’s wrath (Romans 1:18–32).
Idolatry is the result of suppressing God’s general revelation in creation, but it is only God’s special revelation through the gospel that turns people from their idolatry to trust in the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:5, 9).
3. Sexuality (Romans 1:26–28)
The second consequence of suppressing God’s truth flows out of idolatry. It is a sexual consequence, namely homosexuality. By beginning his teaching with “for this reason,” Paul tells us that homosexual behavior comes out of the worship of creation. When people turn from worshipping God, he gives them over to their sin (Romans 1:26, 28). After God gives people over, the body is dishonored and one of the expressions of this is homosexuality, as the natural is exchanged for what is unnatural. Cultural approval of homosexuality is a progressive development of a whole analysis of pagan, monistic (the denial of distinctions between God and the world) thinking. Dr. Peter Jones states,
When people turn from worshipping God, he gives them over to their sin.
Think of it like this: Sexuality and spirituality inevitably meet; they are not watertight compartments of human reality, but are intertwined aspects of the image of God. If in your heart and mind you collapse God and creation, good and evil, you will eventually collapse male and female in a physical expression of your religious reality, and . . . liberate your subconscious fantasies. This logic can be seen in the current cultural pressure regarding same-sex marriage. Marriage is now about mutual love and voluntary commitment, undergirded by personal expression and self-affirmation.13
In recent times, affirming (pro-gay) “Christians”14 have argued that in this text when Paul speaks of men and women acting “contrary to nature,” he is referring to heterosexuals committing homosexual acts, since that is contrary to their nature. Whereas, for a homosexual having same-sex relations is acting according to his or her nature.
Without question, this is not what Paul had in mind. When Paul spoke of acts contrary to nature, he was speaking in particular of God’s created order, which the text makes clear. In Romans 1 the emphasis on nature is God’s created order (see Romans 1:20). This can be seen by the unmistakable connection between Romans 1:23–27 and Genesis 1:26 in the Greek Septuagint (LXX). Without any question, Paul had the creation account in mind when he wrote these words.
|Genesis 1:26–27||Romans 1:23, 26–27|
|A. God’s Likeness and Image in Humans|
|Human (anthropos)||Human (anthropos)|
|Image (eikōn)||Image (eikōn)|
|Likeness (homoiosis)||Likeness (homoioma)|
|B. Dominion over the Animal Kingdom|
|Birds (peteina)||Birds (peteina)|
|Cattle (ktēnos)||Four-footed beasts (tetrapoda)|
|Reptile (herpeta)||Reptiles (herpeta)|
|C. Male and Female Differentiation|
|Male (arsen)||Males (arsenes)|
|Female (thelus)||Females (theleiai)|
Again, in verses 26–27, Paul uses inter-textual echoes of the Greek used in the LXX in Genesis 1:27. He does this by identifying the sexes as “females” (theleiai) and “males” (arsenes) rather than “women” (gynaikes) and “men” (andres or anthropoi). Paul is looking back to the God-ordained sexuality given in creation in Genesis 1.
In verse 26, “females and males” are used in this passage presumably because Paul has in mind particularly their sexual relationship, and, indeed, sexual compatibility (see Genesis 1:27; Matthew 19:4; Mark 10:6). Paul’s point in Romans 1:27 of “
the men, leaving the natural use of the woman” is quite clearly referring to homosexual acts that are contrary to God’s created order. To act “contrary to nature” is to act contrary to God’s male-female order established at creation, not to act in a way that is contrary to a fallen human’s perceived sexual orientation.
The good news is that God has provided a way for mankind to escape his wrath.
In Romans 1:18–32, Paul is outlining the general, downward progression of the human race in ancient history: idolatry, heterosexual immorality, homosexual acts, and then “
evil, covetousness, malice . . . envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. These are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:29–31). These are all aspects of our fallen nature, the result of worshipping created things rather than the Creator. All these things are evidence of the fallen state of the human race. In Romans, Paul views these acts as a sign of God’s wrath and abandonment of him.
Although a punitive tone dominates this chapter, a redemptive element is not entirely absent (see Romans 2:1–3:26). The good news, which Paul eventually gets to in Romans 3, is that God has provided a way for mankind to escape his wrath. This can only come, however, by trusting in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ who experienced the wrath of God for sinful humanity and then rose bodily from the dead, proving that he had satisfied God’s righteous demands and providing believers with the gift of eternal life (Romans 3:22–25, 6:23, 10:9–10).