This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and 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.
28And 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.29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.32Though 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.
The Lust of the Heart
How low can people go? While in recent years same-sex relations have been glamorized in some sectors of society, Jesus confirmed that God’s will for marriage has always been lifelong heterosexual monogamy (Matt. 19:4–6).1Alternatives may be fashionable, but they are expressions of God’s abandoning people to the “lusts of their hearts” and to “impurity,” which can also be translated “vileness” (BDAG, s.v. καθαρσία).
These verses reflect not a low but rather a high view of sexuality. “Dishonoring . . . their bodies” by same-sex erotics implies that opposite-sex relations can have the effect of honoring human bodies. God intended marital relations that have the potential for fruitfulness and population of the earth (Gen. 1:28). Old Testament teaching affirms the virtue and joy of physical intimacy in marriage (Prov. 5:15–19). Elsewhere Paul condemns the forbidding of heterosexual marriage (1 Tim. 4:3). Paul is not sour on sex. He seeks to warn readers of the grimy origins and consequences of misuse of one of God’s greatest gifts: human sexuality.
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Romans 1:23 spoke in general of the “exchange” of God’s glory for figments of human imagining. Verse 25 identifies same-sex practice as a specific example of what happens when God’s truth is “exchanged” for “a lie” and when veneration of “the creature” substitutes for worship of “the Creator.” So great is Paul’s regard for God that he segues here into the first of five doxological exclamations in Romans.2Paul models intuitive and spontaneous praise to God for the excellence and nobility of his good gift of human sexuality!
Exchanging the Truth
“For this reason” (Rom. 1:26) refers to the fact that “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature” (Rom. 1:25). God alone is to be worshiped and served in all things. Human sexuality is a gift not to be squandered. It is not sexual passion or pleasure in general that is described here. It is rather their misuse, which results in being handed over to “dishonorable passions.” What does this mean? Paul is not vague, nor does he single out either men or women. Both alike run afoul of God’s “good and acceptable and perfect” will (Rom. 12:2) when they exchange “natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (Rom. 1:26). By “nature” Paul does not mean that which is culturally acceptable but points to that which man’s moral nature compels him to affirm innately.
The description of lesbian activity in verse 26 is matched in verse 27 by a description of same-sex attraction running amok in men. Four phases of the misdeed are listed: (1) men devote to other men the romantic ardor God gives men for women; (2) men are inflamed with defiling desires3 for other men; (3) men perform, literally, “the shameful act” with other men; and (4) as a result these men suffer the implications of the sin in which they have indulged. Such implications could be the guilt and burden of their sin in this life, the punishment of their sin in the day of judgment, or both.
Verse 28 returns to the key thought of verse 21: people “knew God” but by dishonoring him “became futile in their thinking.” In verses 24–27 the consequences were spelled out in terms of same-sex error. Now in verse 28 Paul extends the consequence of their “debased mind” in other directions. As “God gave them up” in the sexual domain (Rom. 1:24, 26), so he withdraws the restraints of a mind steered by common grace—grace that causes many people to live generally moral and decent lives in most situations. But now, having tried God’s patience beyond its gracious limits (cf. Rom. 2:4–5), people “do what ought not to be done.” A vivid description ensues.
Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.
The Fallen Human Condition
While Paul can be taken as describing the morals and practices of the Greco-Roman world he has been raised up to evangelize, these verses describe observable human behavior as judged by God’s standards in all places and times. Heinous qualities and deeds such as those Paul describes are not confined to certain eras, geographies, or demographics but are endemic to the fallen human condition.
It should be recalled that Paul is an apostle of the Lord Jesus, who stated similarly: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21–23). Paul in this section of Romans is concurring with a view of the human heart that he has not invented.
Jesus spoke of what comes “from within.” Paul speaks in Romans 1:29 of people being “filled with” and “full of.” These respective descriptions amount to the same bleak portrait. Paul speaks first of “unrighteousness,” the opposite of God’s righteousness to which he has already referred (Rom. 1:17). This “unrighteousness” could serve as the heading for all of the characteristics and practices that follow.
“Evil, covetousness, malice” are self-explanatory. Midway through, the verse shifts grammatically, but what Paul describes is no less intense or unflattering. People are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.” Then the grammar shifts again, reflected in the ESV with a new sentence: “They are gossips . . .”
Verses 30–31 continue in the same vein. The piling up of descriptors is numbing but realistic: the alert student of the human condition must concede that this doleful listing is true-to-fact too much of the time in too many places. In the original, deft word choice heightens the rhetorical effect: all four words in verse 31 begin with the same letter (a-), just as the four consecutive words beginning Paul’s description in verse 29 (“unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice”) all end with the same sound (-ia).
Human sexuality is a gift not to be squandered.
But literary impressiveness is not the point; human decadence is. When people turn their backs on God (Rom. 1:28) they are “filled” (Rom. 1:29; passive voice, likely reflecting God’s active role) with all manner of wickedness. Yet Paul will summarize with what hardly seems possible: an even harsher condemnation.
Innate Awareness of Evil
People have an innate awareness that evil of the breadth and scale described in verses 28–31 deserves God’s punishment. This means not just a slap on the wrist but the full wages of sin (cf. Rom. 6:23)—banishment from God’s presence and the eternal punishment that accompanies it. Paul describes this explicitly elsewhere: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). The human condition as described here is perilous in the extreme.
But as bad as it is for “those who practice such things,” it is even worse for those who “give approval to those who practice them.” It is one thing to condemn oneself. But in a religion whose second great commandment is to love others, to give approval and thereby encouragement to others in their lawlessness is the ultimate in loveless treachery. Elsewhere Scripture teaches, “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). Paul describes the opposite situation: sinners’ condoning others’ abominable, self-destructive behavior, thereby ginning up man’s rush into the “multitude of sins” that Romans 1:28–31 has surveyed.
Little wonder, then, that this section began with the warning that “the wrath of God is [being] revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18). God’s response is the inexorable consequence of human bad decisions and behavior.
- For an academic assessment of Scripture’s views of same-sex practice, see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics(Nashville: Abingdon, 2002); Robert A. J. Gagnon and Dan O. Via, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009). For a pastoral assessment, see Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
- See also Romans 9:5; 11:36; 15:33; 16:27.
- The words translated “consumed” and “passion” in the ESV are both pejorative. These are self-destructive and harmful experiences.
This article is by Robert W. Yarbrough and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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