Paul’s teaching about why a society degenerates into unrestrained, debauched, destructive evil is unlike any analysis you would read today. One of the reasons for this is that when a society is sinking into moral decay, one of the traits of that decay is the inability to see what is happening. The social mind becomes so defective in the moral decadence that it doesn’t have the categories or the framework to recognize evil for what it really is.
We do live in such a day. The inability to render sound moral judgments is evident almost wherever you look. Which makes this passage of Scripture one of the most relevant and needed texts in all the Bible for our day — precisely because it seems so foreign. Today, if something doesn’t seem spiritually or morally foreign, it is probably part of the blind and decadent atmosphere we breathe, and therefore of no real use to us, no matter how good it makes us feel.
What we need is a word from outside our defective world and our depraved thinking. We need a word from God. And we may certainly expect such a word to be very strange, because we have become strangers to the reality of God in a very self-absorbed age.
What we have in today’s text is a list of twenty-one ways of sinning or twenty-one kinds of evil. And what I think we should do is notice, first, why Paul gives us this list and where such evil comes from. Then we should look at the list itself and ask why it’s here. Then we should ask what the solution is to these kinds of things.
Why Do We Have to Deal with Evil?
So, first, where do the evils listed in verses Romans 1:29–31 come from? It all started back in verse 18 where Paul gave the reason for why the gospel of the gift of God’s righteousness is so desperately needed. You recall that he said in verse 16 that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
“We need the righteousness of God because it is the only thing that can protect us from the wrath of God.”
Why? Verse 17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith.’” In other words: The gospel is the power of God to save believers because in it God gives us what we need and could never produce on our own, namely, his own righteousness. The righteousness that he demands from us he freely gives to us, if we will trust him. This is the great biblical truth of justification by faith.
Then in verse 18, he tells us why this gospel of the gift of God’s righteousness is so desperately needed: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” We need the righteousness of God because it is the only thing that can protect us from the wrath of God. And we need to be protected from the wrath of God because we are unrighteous by nature and suppress the truth of God. By nature we don’t like God and we don’t want him in our lives. I tremble just to say it.
The Effects of Suppressing the Truth of God
So what Paul does in the following verses is describe for us the effects of suppressing the truth of God. He wants us to see all the evil of the world as a river that flows from this spring. Reject God, suppress God, distort God, recreate God in your own image to your own liking, and the effect is worse than we expect. And the thing that is worse than we expect is that God joins our crusade against God, as it were, and delivers us into the debasing effects of our own rebellion against him.
We’ve seen it three times. In verse 23, we exchange the glory of God for images, and verse 24 says, “Therefore God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts.” In verse 25, we exchange the truth about God for a lie, and verse 26 says, “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions.” And today in verse 28 we see it again: “They did not see fit to acknowledge God (or literally: they did not approve to have God in their knowledge), [therefore] God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.”
This is what Paul means by the wrath of God being revealed (verse 18): God’s wrath is being revealed against the world, as human beings all over the world set their affections on other things more than on God. God’s response to this worldwide disloyalty and treason against our Creator is not, first, to send us to hell, but to see that we sink into the swamp we have chosen.
This is what I was referring to at the beginning when I said that Paul’s teaching about why societies often degenerate into unrestrained, debauched, destructive evil is unlike any analysis you would read today. Today you might hear someone say: “Okay, America, you have built your bed of secular, God-belittling relativism and amorality, so now sleep in it.” But that is not what Paul says here.
He says something far more horrifying about God’s wrath. He gives us his analysis of our situation in four steps. Just take verse 28 from today’s text to see all four. First, he says that the root problem is that we don’t like having God in our knowledge. “They did not see fit to acknowledge God.” That is the fundamental problem in the world. That is the essence of the human condition. We don’t want God. We want self-determination and self-exaltation. That was the first sin in the garden. And that is the root of all evil today. We do not want to know God or have him in our lives.
The Depth of our Sin Deserves Divine Judgment
The second step of God’s analysis is that God, in an act of judgment (recall the revealing of “wrath” in verse 18), withdraws his common restraints on our rebellion and gives us over to sink in the swamp we have chosen. This is what you will not hear in any social analysis today. Who today has the God-centered realism to say: The depth of our sin does not just deserve divine judgment, it is divine judgment? That is what Paul says. You can’t really understand America (or any other country) today without this revealed truth. Even if we tried to boast over God that at least we have our self-determination in rebelling against God, God would answer, “You think so? Think again.”
“Wherever we are sinking in sin, it is because we have jumped off the rock of the glory of God.”
The third step in Paul’s analysis (in verse 28) is that the effect of God’s giving us over and removing his common restraints (see Genesis 20:6) is that we are imprisoned by a “depraved mind.” “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” Our minds become more and more defective in sin. Not only do we use them to sin, but we can’t even think clearly about sin. We can’t recognize it. It’s as if we turned away from God and fell in love with the African black fly that carries the roundworm that causes river blindness, and then God gave us over to the fly and the worm — and the blindness — so that all we can do now is fondle the fly (of sin!) and keep trying to convince ourselves that it’s a precious tuft of velvet.
The fourth step of the analysis (in verse 28) is that our defective mind produces all kinds of evils. Paul goes on to list twenty-one of them as samples. So now we have our answer to the first question, namely, where does such evil come from? It comes from: (1) our desire not to have God in our knowledge; and (2) from God’s judgment on mankind to give us over to sink in the swamp we love; and (3) from the depraved or defective mind that we sink into.
Failure to Love God Breeds Evil
So now we can ask the question: What is this list of evils? What are we to make of this long list and why is it here? Let’s read it again. Verse Romans 1:28–31:
God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful.
Of course, a person could raise an objection against Paul here: This is not the way all unbelievers are. Some are very conscientious, law-abiding, philanthropic, courteous, decent people. Yes, that’s true, and Paul knew it was true. He was quite aware, for example, of the Stoics of his own day — people like Seneca and later, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who prided themselves in not being like this list of evils, and yet, who were not Christians.
No, the point of this list is not to say that every society that refuses to love the true God will look just like this. We know this because, in verses 26–27, Paul says that homosexual desire is also a result of not loving God above other things, and being handed over by God, and yet Paul clearly does not think that every unbeliever has homosexual desires.
Similarly, here in verse 28–31, when he says that all these sins are the result of refusing to acknowledge God, and he doesn’t mean that every unbeliever, or group of unbelievers, has all these sins or in the same measure. Instead, these are samples. They are the sort of thing that comes from rejecting God, and the more God gives a people up to their own unrestrained depravity, the more their society will have these sins in greater and greater measure.
Sunk in Sin
So what’s the point of listing all these sins? The point, I think, is to give us enough examples to show that virtually every form of evil has to do with God and comes from failing to know him and approve him and love him above all things. In other words, he gives us a sweeping array of evils to awaken us to the fact that the ruin of any area of life is owing to the abandonment of God. Verse 28: they did not want God in their knowledge, therefore . . . and then he gives his list of evils.
In other words, the point of the list is to connect God with every sin in the world. And we’ve seen that the connection is twofold: every sin is rooted in our preferring something else to God; and every sin gets worse as God takes away his restraints and gives us up to sink in the swamp we have chosen.
If America has the highest murder rate in the western world, it has to do with God. If our executives are greedy, it has to do with God. If our politicians are deceitful, it has to do with God. If we gossip about each other behind the back, it has to do with God. If our talk show hosts are insolent and boastful, it has to do with God. If our children are disobedient to parents, it has to do with God. If we are untrustworthy and don’t keep our marriage vows, it has to do with God. If we are blind to obvious wrongs and are unloving and unmerciful, it has to do with God.
That’s the point of this list. Wherever we are sinking in sin, it is because we have jumped off the rock of the glory of God.
How Do We Battle Destructive Evils?
Which brings us finally to the third and last question: What is the solution? How shall we battle back against these destructive evils in our own lives and in our culture? The answer is what the whole book of Romans is about. But let’s close by looking at three great reversals.
We need the reversal of God’s wrath against our unrighteousness.
We need the reversal of God’s handing us over to a depraved mind.
We need the reversal of our mind’s moral decay so that it can be renewed for right and proper use in God’s service.
The good news is that God has provided every one of those reversals. You do not have to sink any further if you will embrace God and his provision. The key verse for the reversal of God’s wrath against us is Romans 1:17: In the gospel of Christ, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
In other words, the righteousness that God demands from us, he freely gives to us, if we will turn back to him and trust him to be our greatest Good. And if you have the righteousness of God, you are not under the wrath of God anymore — a very happy reversal!
God Grants Righteousness
The key verse for the reversal of God’s handing us over to a depraved mind is Romans 6:17: “Thanks be to God that, though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were handed over [same word as Romans 1:28].”
“The righteousness that God demands from us, he freely gives to us.”
This is the exact reversal of the handover in Romans 1:28. Here it is to a form of teaching that is true and holy, not false and dirty. And notice that it is God who does it. “Thanks be to God,” Paul says, that you became obedient to this teaching. God gives us over to truth and righteousness as much as he once gave us over to sin.
Finally, the key verse for reversing the defectiveness of our minds is Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Receive the Reversal
When God has given us his righteousness by faith in Jesus, and when he has handed us over to a new teaching of truth and begun to make us obedient to it, then, little by little, we are transformed in the renewing of our minds and the long list of sins in Romans 1:29–31 becomes shorter and weaker to the glory of God.
This is the key to life. This is the message that we take to the neighborhood and to the nations. I call you and urge you to receive these three reversals from the hand of God by faith: (1) the reversal of God’s wrath through the gift of God’s righteousness; (2) the reversal of being handed over to depravity through being handed over to truth; and (3) the reversal of a depraved mind through the transformation of a renewed mind.