In one sense, verse 32 brings chapter one to an end with a very bleak view of human nature. The point of the last half of the verse is to show that many people not only do things that they know deserve death, but also entice others to do them and approve when they do. “Although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
In other words, the end-point of depravity is not just the suicidal love affair with sin, but the desire to bring others with you to destruction. It’s not just that people choose death for themselves in the passion of sin, but that they become Dr. Kevorkians at the spiritual level, and assist others in eternal self-destruction by approving their sin. You can think of lots of ways this is happening today.
I’ll give you one illustration. Jesus said,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27–29)
In other words, we can know that giving up the fight for purity and giving in to a life of lust will, in the end, destroy our souls (see 1 Peter 2:11).
“Giving up the fight for purity and giving in to a life of lust will, in the end, destroy our souls.”
So for a person to live in lust is spiritually and eternally suicidal. It deserves the sentence of eternal death, Jesus says. What are we to make of it then, that in our day not only do millions of people live this way, but tens of thousands of people assist them to live this way and devote all their energies to providing the means by which millions sign their own eternal death warrant.
Last year (February 10, 1997) U.S. News and World Report carried an article by Eric Schlosser who reported that pornography has become so commercially successful that it has at least one trade publication called Adult Video News. The News claims that the number of X-rated video rentals rose from 75 million in 1985 to 665 million in 1996. In that year, $8 billion was spent on pornographic material in America. Schlosser said that if you add up all that our country spends on Broadway productions, and regional and nonprofit theaters, and include the total revenues for opera, ballet, jazz, and classical music performances, you have less than the revenues for strip clubs alone.
So, in view of what Jesus says about the eternal peril of living in lust, what this amounts to is not only millions of people committing spiritual suicide, but also tens of thousands of people making their living luring others to destruction and helping them drink the poison that will kill them. This is what Paul says is the bottom of the spiral into depravity — not just doing what deserves death, but heartily approving others who do it and even helping them along in their self-destruction.
But I began by saying that, in one sense, verse 32 brings chapter one to an end with a very bleak view of human nature. We not only sin and choose death; we approve sin and recruit for sin and fail to be outraged at sin, and we create a climate for sin to flourish, and so we take others with us to death. But there is another sense in which this verse is, in my view, full of hope for those of us who love the truth and love to see people find it and believe it and be saved by trusting Jesus, who is the Truth. So what I want to do is make three observations about what this verse teaches, and then, on the basis of these, show you one of the hopeful implications of the verse.
Everyone Knows God and Some of His Moral Demands
The first observation is that verse 32 takes us back to verses 18–19 and teaches us that everyone not only knows God, but also knows some of the moral demands of God and what disobedience deserves. Look back at verses 18–19: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” We saw from these verses that there is in all human beings a knowledge of God. Verse 18 says we are guilty for suppressing it and that the wrath of God is being revealed on us because we do. But the knowledge is there.
Now in verse 32, we learn that this knowledge of God includes a knowledge of his moral law: “They know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death.” Paul is speaking here of people in general who do not have access to the Bible or any special revelation. This is an astonishing affirmation about human nature. Everybody has knowledge of God and the moral law of God, whether they have seen a Bible or not, or whether they live in America or in an undiscovered people group of Irian Jaya.
People are Without Excuse Before God
The second observation is that this knowledge means people are without excuse before God not only because of the way they treat God, but also because of the way they treat each other. We saw in verses 20–21 that people are without excuse, because, even though they know God, they don’t honor him or give him thanks: “They are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks.” Having knowledge of what you should do takes away excuses for not doing it.
“Everybody has knowledge of God and the moral law of God, whether they have seen a Bible or not.”
Now we see that this same principle applies not only to how people treat God, but how they treat each other. Verse 32: “Although they know the ordinance of God (verse 21), that those who practice such things are worthy of death (they are without excuse, verse 20), they not only do the same (verse 21), but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” You see the parallel. In verses 20–21, they are without excuse because they know God, but don’t treat him the way they should. And in verse 32 they are without excuse because they know God’s moral law, but don’t treat people the way they should.
And there is another important point to make about this accountability. We are morally responsible for our sins (that is, without excuse) even though our sinning may be worse because we have been handed over by God to the power of a depraved mind. Recall verse 28: “God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.” The point of verse 32 is to say that “practicing such things” (the very things that God handed us over to) deserve death even though we have been handed over by God to do them. In other words, God’s judgment on sin — that it becomes worse and worse — does not lessen the guilt of the sinner. On the contrary, verse 32 says, “we know” that the very things we do when God hands us over to our own depravity are “worthy of death.”
Real Knowledge Deeper Than Consciousness
The third observation from verse 32 is that there is a real knowing of moral things that is deeper than consciousness. I say this because there are, no doubt, many people who would say that they don’t believe in moral standards set by God, especially if they say they don’t believe in God. But verse 32 says, “They know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death.” Note the phrase, “ordinance of God.” Paul teaches us that, even if people don’t think they know ordinances of God, they, in fact, do know at least one, namely, that doing the things listed in verses 29–31 deserves death. This must mean then that there is a knowledge deeper than consciousness.
We saw this in verse 18: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” There is a “holding down” of the truth about God and about his law. This can be done with such immediacy and with such natural disapproval that we don’t even see it happening. We know that certain things are against God’s law, but we don’t experience the knowing as conscious.
Everyone Knows God and His Law
Now, on the basis of these three observations, consider the implications for our sharing the gospel with unbelievers. Consider what this means for apologetics — giving reasons for your faith — and for missions to, say, Muslim people or Jewish people.
What verse 32, together with verses 18–21, teaches us is that every person we know, and every person we will ever talk to, already knows God, deep down, and knows God’s law. That is an astonishing truth for everyone who wants to communicate the gospel. Think on it specifically for a moment.
Verses 18–21 teach that everyone knows God, in the sense that everyone knows that God exists and that he is “eternal” and “powerful” and “glorious” and “beneficent.” At least that much, Paul says, is made known in nature and is buried somewhere in the subconscious of every person — in some deep, and in some just beneath the surface. We may suppress it, but we know it. It is there, and it has effects on our lives.
Then verse 32 adds that everyone knows not only that God exists and is eternal and powerful and glorious and beneficent, but also that God has a “righteous ordinance,” that the sins of verses 29–31 deserve the punishment of death. Everyone, Paul says, knows this. Charles Hodge puts it like this: “The most reprobate sinner carries about with him a knowledge of his just exposure to the wrath of God” (Romans, 45).
What Does This Mean for Evangelism?
Not that everyone you talk to will necessarily admit that he or she knows this. But you come to them with the tremendous (biblical) confidence that you are not starting from scratch in establishing the truth in their soul. They are not blank tablets. They may have buried it, distorted it, hidden it, drugged it, run from it by overwork or excessive play and entertainment; but you know it is there.
What do you do? You don’t assume they don’t need to hear that truth. You don’t say, “Well, the truth of God and his moral law is in their heart, so I will not tell them about God’s glory and power and his righteous demands.” Rather, you speak the truth with the confidence that this reality you are describing is not utterly foreign to them. You speak with the confidence that what you are saying can ring true with something deep inside of them.
To Those Who Say, “Is There a God?”
What if they say, “How do I know that what you are saying is true? How do I know there is a God, and that he is glorious and beneficent? What about Hurricane Mitch and Honduras? Maybe God should be cursed instead of thanked. Maybe he deserves death for breaking my law instead of me deserving death for breaking his law”?
Now there are a lot of possible answers to this kind of question. One would be to take them to Luke 13:1–5 and say, “Those who die in natural catastrophes are not necessarily worse sinners than the rest of us. Unless we repent we will all perish.” Or you could take them to the book of Job and show them how Satan is involved in some natural catastrophes, but that God maintains ultimate control and brings all the events of the world to serve his good and overarching purposes. Or you could take them straight to the cross of Christ and show them that, whatever misery we must suffer here, God shared our misery in order to save us from the final judgment on our sin and bring us to everlasting joy.
“God declares righteous everyone who simply trusts in him.”
But Romans 1:32 suggests another possible answer. You might say, “I know you doubt the reality of God and his glory and his goodness and his moral law and your guilt for disobedience. I know that. But the Bible teaches that you really do know these things already deep in your heart. Which means that if you would humble yourself and ask God to free you from the blinding effects of sin, these things could take on a self-evidencing authority for you. You wouldn’t be dependent on me or anybody else. You would know the truth because God has revealed it to you in nature and has written it on your heart.”
Then you could say, “In fact, if you’re willing, what I would like to do is tell you God’s remedy for this guilt. When you see that there is indeed a God who is great and glorious and good, and when you see that he has a moral law that we have broken and that we all deserve death, know this: God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners. He lived a perfect life. He died to take our place, so that everyone who trusts him will be forgiven and will be counted righteous before God for Jesus’s sake. My prayer for you is that God will uncover the knowledge that he has already put in your heart in such away that you will see the perfect fit between the gospel of Christ and your need.”
Oh, ponder these things for yourselves and for the people you want to reach with the saving gospel of Jesus. Ponder them in relation to Jewish people, for example, and Muslim people. Romans 1:32 says that every one of them knows that he has broken the ordinances of God, and that he deserves death. But neither Judaism nor Islam has a satisfying way to deal with this kind of guilt and get right with God. Therefore, if God would be pleased, in answer to our prayers, this innate knowledge could make them ready for the gospel — the good news that because of Jesus’s death for our sin, God declares righteous everyone who simply trusts in him.
If you’re not a Christian this morning, be encouraged to open your eyes to the truth that God says is already in you, and then let the gospel of Christ crucified be the perfect remedy for what you see. And if you are a Christian this morning, let Romans 1:32 make you more bold with unbelievers, and more confident that God has gone before you to do a great work of preparation. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the perfect and the only remedy for what people already deeply and profoundly know about themselves. Speak it with love and pray that God would give them the grace to suppress the truth no longer.