“This is why God delivered them over to degrading passions. For even their females exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The males in the same way also left natural relations with females and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong. They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. Although they know full well God’s just sentence — that those who practice such things deserve to die — they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them.” (Romans 1:26-32 HCSB)
Have you ever pointed your finger at someone in an accusing way? Did your mother ever tell you that you should be careful when you do because you have three more pointing back at you? One of the dangers of scripture is our tendency to use it to point fingers or to use it like wedge or a club. We use it as a wedge when we misquote scripture in ways intended drive a wedge between God’s forgiveness and someone’s sin. We use it as a club when we use scripture to drive them away from God’s love and grace. In fact, we use it as a wedge and a club when we use this specific passage in such a way as to drive a wedge between sinners and God or in an attempt to drive them away from God’s love and grace. Let’s take a look…
One of the problems with freedom is, well, that it gives people freedom. I know that sounds a bit like double-speak, but when people are free to make their own choices they are also free to make bad choices. They have the freedom to agree or to disagree with me, you and even with God. While I don’t like it when someone shows disrespect towards our Nation’s flag, they do have the freedom and the right to do so. That might cause you some discomfort or even some indigestion, but our core freedoms as Americans rest on those very principles. One of the reasons for the First Amendment to our Constitution is because our Nation was founded on our protests towards the freedoms we were denied by the British. In a similar fashion, one of the problems with God’s grace and forgiveness is that God offers grace and forgiveness to those who need it. Indeed, He offers it to those who need it the most – you and me.
Whenever we read a passage, like the one above, it is very easy to see how well it applies to everyone – that is, how well it applies to everyone else. Over the past several weeks, we have been focusing on the core issue of the revelation of God in creation and as the Creator and our tendency to worship the creature (or things created) rather than the Creator. In other words, we’ve been looking at how God fits into and relates to our world, in general, and the place He deserves and holds in our lives, in particular. Paul knows that idolatry is at the heart of our rebellious spirits and is the core cause for the pointless thinking and degraded desires of those who reject God’s authority. We see it so well in others, but not so well in ourselves.
Our focal passage begins with the phrase, “this is why…” To understand what Paul is referencing, you must look back at the previous verse. The “why” is that man had “exchanged the TRUTH of God for a lie.” Because man had exchanged the truth of God for a lie, He gave them over to their degrading desires. Our human desires were good when created by God but have been corrupted by sin and that results in those desires leading us into responding or attempting to satisfy them in ways that are inconsistent with God’s design and, thus, degraded from (less than) His intent. Last week, we considered how those degraded desires have impacted our sexuality, gender views, and our marriages and families.
As we begin to look at this week’s focal passage in detail, I want to remind you that Paul tells us first that a degraded view of heterosexual intimacy and marriage are also impacted by degrading passions and sexual impurity (see last week). This week, he moves into an area that is a cultural hot potato – God’s view of homosexuality. I pointed out the former as a means of stressing that sexual impurity and degraded passions are certainly NOT aimed solely at homosexuals or other forms of sexually impure desires, passions and actions. As I pointed out, we like to point our fingers at others but often fail to remember or realize that we have three more pointing back at ourselves.
First, I want to address what this passage is NOT talking about and what it does NOT say. Some LGBTQ+ supporters try to claim that this passage is addressing a common practice among homosexuals in Paul’s day who had “degraded passions” for young sexual partners, and not consenting adult partners. They also take the term “natural relations” and try to make the case that this means natural and normal for their homosexual identity. So according to this view, the shame comes from not following the “natural” desires they feel as a homosexual or from engaging in relations with non-consenting adult partners. This interpretation of the passage obviously fits well with our culture’s “love is love” mindset and worldview and is in strong opposition with and in direct contrast to the traditional Christian mindset and worldview. So, has the church traditionally misunderstood and misinterpreted this passage? Let’s take a look…
A simple reading of verses 18-25 of Romans 1 gives a clear indication that when Paul references “natural” he means the physical creation of God as he had just described. He clearly believes that the natural, created world reveals the character, nature and purpose of God. In fact, the words that Paul uses in our focal passage to refer to “males and females” are not the words we would normally expect to find for men/man and woman/women. Instead, he uses terms that are specifically used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from the creation story. So, he appears to be pulling us back into his earlier references of God’s actions in creating the world to point out that “natural” (this is also our word for physical – Greek ‘phusikal’) is the way He created them as male and female in the beginning. Each meeting the other’s needs and completing one another. That’s the natural sexual relations Paul references, not the homosexual’s personally desired, consenting adult relations as some modern interpretations would have us believe.
Paul then goes on to point out, again, that these degraded desires (desires that are less than what God intended and designed) led those who embraced them into a denial of God’s existence and authority and, just as before, leads them into empty, futile or worthless thinking. This kind of thinking is empty because they believe the lie that the fulfillment their homosexual desires will bring them the love, satisfaction and happiness that they desire. It is the same empty, worthless thinking that we’ve discussed over the last several weeks that others embrace in their lust for money, power, ungodly heterosexual desires, and anything that serves as a replacement for loving God with all of our being. Paul is not singling out homosexual desires as the ONLY degrading passion that leads to empty thinking, he includes all of these things as degrading passions that lead to empty, worthless thinking.
One word of clarification is needed in this passage for some of us. Paul says that they “received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.” It has become common for some Christians to take that vague statement regarding “appropriate penalty” and to claim it must mean “this or that” and you can fill in any number of possible penalties that we’ve associated with homosexual behavior or sexual activity. I want you to notice, Paul doesn’t leave this penalty vague. He completes his thought and defines for us the penalty that God gives and they receive, “God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong.” The penalty is the same “empty thinking” or “worthless/pointless mind” that he has previously associated to the those who believe this lie regarding God. What’s my point? That the penalty for this sin is the same as the others, empty and futile thoughts of finding satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness and love through a substitute god disguised as one’s sexual identity. At its heart, sin is the rejection of God’s authority over man’s thoughts, desires, actions and purposes.
At this point, Paul describes the downward spiral brought on by the pernicious lie regarding God’s existence. In our modern culture, we find many who question or outright deny the existence of God. While it is common to cite the statistic that 80% of Americans still believe in the existence of God, recent data from Pew Research says that only 65% of Americans identify as Christian with 26% identifying as atheist (4%), agnostic (5%) or no religion in particular (17%). Of those who self-identify as Christian, only 45% attend worship once a month or more while 54% attend worship a few times a year or less. If you’d like, you can read the report here. As I’ve pointed out and asked before, is it sufficient to simply believe in God’s existence or to claim faith in Christ? The Apostle James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe — and they shudder. Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:19-20 HCSB)
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord! ’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name? ’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 HCSB)
It isn’t sufficient to believe in the God of the Bible, as James states, and it isn’t sufficient to profess that Jesus is LORD. Belief and Words aren’t enough. If you didn’t catch it go back and read Jesus’ words, again. It isn’t enough to just call Him, “Lord, Lord.” Who will enter the kingdom? The one who does the will of My Father in heaven! Now, some of you may think that I’ve abandoned the old Biblical principle of salvation by grace through faith (see Eph. 2:8-9), but nothing could be farther from the truth. What I AM saying is that real faith is accompanied by more than just words. Real, living faith produces fruits of obedience and righteousness (see Eph. 2:10). So, does real faith mean I will attend church more than once or twice a year? Well, scripture does say that we should not forsake assembling together like some have been known to do (see Heb. 10:24-25). The Christian faith is a communal faith. It is not to be practiced in isolation, like some ascetics have done, but is to be practiced in community and that community is the church.
So, what is this downward spiral that Paul detects among those who deny and reject the knowledge of God? He sees them move from an intellectual rejection of God and God’s authority to an overt and very open and ungodly lifestyle. He first describes this ungodliness in very generic terms; “they are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness.” The danger here is to misunderstand Paul’s point and, thus, to dismiss his words and concerns. Most people I know have a general view that people are pretty good, deep down inside. There’s the occasional evil person, but most are generally nice folks. But when scripture talks about the pervasiveness of sin in the human heart, it is NOT saying that every act of sinful man is unrighteous, evil or wicked but it IS saying that EVERY area of man’s life is impacted by sin. In other words, not everything an unbeliever does is sin but every part of his/her life is being influenced and impacted by desires and thoughts that are at odds with God’s will, purpose and desire for his/her life. So, even when we do something nice or good for someone else it can often be for selfish reasons or personal gain.
Ok, so what’s my point? Paul ends this chapter/section on a very, very negative note that those who practice such things deserve to die. While many of you who read my words have turned to faith in Christ and obedience to God’s will, at one point we were all included in his list and deserving of death, but I would be remiss if I ended on that note. Please, please pay close attention to this part. I know that God’s condemnation sounds harsh, but we are ALL included in Paul’s condemnation – not just homosexuals. We like to take this passage and use it like a wedge or club against those caught up in the lie of the homosexual lifestyle but I want you to understand that Paul’s words are not for that purpose. His intention is not to try and separate them from God’s love and grace, but to include them. But also, to encourage ALL of us to see ourselves in this same predicament and in need of God’s love, grace and forgiveness.
Maybe you are caught up in the lie that your sexual identity will bring you love, happiness and fulfillment – whether that sexual identity is heterosexual or homosexual. If so, please hear me clearly. Any and EVERY lifestyle that is in opposition to God’s will and purpose is empty and leads to these same empty, pointless thoughts and, ultimately, eternal separation from God. Paul’s words are not just a warning, they are a beacon of hope. As I stated above, every one of us has been included in Paul’s words of condemnation and are deserving of death but Christ brings hope and a new life. You may be out of touch with God, but you are NOT out of His reach. Faith in Christ starts with acknowledging God’s existence, authority and His right to define who and what you are because you are His creation. While your thoughts and desires may be in opposition to His will, you are not alone. All of us struggle in that area. So, your walk begins by yielding to His will and His right to set the course for you and your life. That’s what it means for Him to be Lord, He’s in charge of things in your life, now.
Next, He calls you to daily obedience and I stress that word – daily. Walking with Him means that you take each day as a fresh challenge to obedience and faithfulness. Maybe you failed in some way, yesterday. Confess that failure and seek His wisdom and strength to defeat that same temptation, today! Just as sin is a downward spiral of degrading thoughts, faith is an upward climb of righteous thinking, trust and obedient, godly actions. Also, knowledge of God and trust in God comes from faith in His Word and time in prayer. These are not mysterious things, but they are challenging. Changing your habits takes intentional effort and achievable goals. You can’t run a marathon tomorrow if you started the physical training today. To be spiritually fit requires effort, goals, and persistence… oh, and a good team. Get into a bible believing/preaching church. Don’t settle for show, look for substance. Do they know scripture and do they obey it?
Finally, two words of caution… 1) don’t be guilty of using scripture as a wedge to separate people from God’s love and grace or as a club to drive them away from God’s love and grace; 2) don’t be guilty of applauding or approving disobedience to Christ. Some churches and Christians are guilty of the first in their attitudes towards those who struggle with homosexuality. As I mentioned above, you and I were included in that same group as guilty sinners condemned by our sin. God’s love and grace is sufficient for them and can save them in the same way that it transforms you and I. Still, others are guilty of the second as they turn a blind eye towards sexual sin, in general, and homosexuality, in particular, as they succumb to cultural pressure. We must resist both extremes and present the Gospel in a clear, consistent and loving way.