The book of Romans is about God’s plan of salvation, and that it’s for anyone who will turn away from their sin and turn to Jesus. After some introductory remarks, he hits Romans 1.18-32 like a hammer on an anvil, not easing into his argument, but smashing into it like a bull on crack. His point is that everyone, each and every individual, is subject to the bondage of sin, is separated from God, and that no amount of religion or goodness will take that away.
Michael Horton puts it very well when he says: Our culture identifies reason with naturalism and faith with feeling. That comes from a deeper problem: the attempt to “climb to heaven” on the rungs of reason, morality, and experience. The “search for the sacred” is what happens when our God-centered nature is taken captive by sin. We do whatever we can and whatever we have to to fill the void and make the connection. Religion and spirituality are all about what we feel and think deep within our precious, delightful, individual souls. Instead, the True God calls us outdoors into a history that sweeps us into its wake. Yet we prefer to sit inside our own souls and minds, stewing in our own juices.
Biblical faith emphasizes that we cannot ascend to God on our own; rather, the God of the Bible descends down to us. Our inner self is not the playground of “spirit,” but the haunted plains on which we build our towers of Babel and create our own god the way we want him to be. In other words, our hearts are idol factories, in bondage to sin and spin (Jer. 17.9). We look for a god we can manage rather than the God who is actually there.
In Romans 1 and 2, Paul affirms this. He claims that everyone knows God exists and is a sovereign, righteous, and all-knowing judge. No matter who you are, you have a built-in moral sense, and so are without excuse for the way you think and act. And even though we know the truth, we ignore it or suppress it so we can think what we want to think and believe what we want to believe.
Thus, the writer declares, all of us are separated from God. Each one of us has rebelled against Him. Not a single one of us is totally without fault. But God doesn’t interfere with our free will, instead he lets us each run our own self-destructive course according to our own choosing. God’s wrath on us is not a punishment from him, but that he lets us, when it comes right down to it, create our own hell. The wrath of God is not anger, but judgment. He’s not up in heaven stomping around like a spoiled child, but his love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and patience have all been despised by humanity (as a whole) who has rebelled against him with a tornado of ungodliness (the only choice if you turn away from God) and unrighteousness (again, the only choice if you turn away from the Righteous One). It turns out that our rebellion was not accidental but intentional, which is especially hurtful to the One who loves us. People who knew the truth locked it away in a prison so they could live the way they wanted, which is in untruth (unrighteousness) since God is taken out of the picture.
It’s an odd picture: Even though it’s God desire to save us, no one lines up to be saved. We choose to walk around in unbelief so we can create god along the lines of “what I think.” We “suppress the truth”—drown it in an ocean of self-will, which is sin. God doesn’t stop it; he doesn’t force himself on us. Love can’t force itself. It just breaks God’s heart to see us treating him and each other so selfishly. He sees all the “unrighteousness”: injustice, dishonesty, self-centeredness, false thinking, contempt, and brutality. The terrible thing about human freedom is that it can be used for such fearful ends. (Remember, this is just the beginning of the story. Read the rest of Romans to get the whole picture.)
We all know better. It’s not as if God’s character or his loving desires for people were such a big secret. God has made himself evident enough to be perceived on some level. The Bible says God is a God of order, uniformity, purpose, function, cause and effect, beauty, reason, personality, knowledge, morality, will, and love—and we can see all of these in life around us. They are all part of our world, and all speak against the opinion that the universe is a place of stark chemicals, chance, and impersonality. According to Paul, it’s not that complicated.
He then says that even though people know this, they make a choice to turn in other directions with their thinking. Because they turn to other ways of thought, they deliberately exclude certain categories and ways of thinking (viz., the biblical evidences and interpretations) and become secular: certainly still filled with knowledge and truth, but “futile”—missing pieces that are supposed to be there for complete understanding. They are living behind a barrier, in the shadows, only seeing part of the picture. Much of that “futile” thinking, just to make clear, can even be religious thought, from the grossest superstition to the most delicate spirituality; we create it to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. “Religion” is particularly guilty of creating its own realities. Sin takes over all things, but becomes so commonplace we don’t even see it. For us it’s just “life as usual.” For God, it’s heart-breaking separation.
“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” For all their smarts, at best they were still only seeing part of the picture, and they are ignorant of their own ignorance. They create their own versions of God so they can try to make sense of their world without the true God. They had already marginalized God and had decided to go without Him, misrepresenting knowledge and science by excluding any notion of the sacred. But since life has purpose and meaning, and giving their lives in purpose to God was no longer an option, they gave their lives to the advancement of other entities, realities, and truths. Without God in the picture, life is now about other things. Again, the Bible represents it as an intentional act of rebellion, not an accidental, ignorant slip in a different direction. God let them do it because love will not force itself on another.
The first casualty after faulty thinking was sexual impurity. He “gave them over” to it. He opened his hands—an act of love. Instead of holding them against their will, he opened his hands to allow them their own choice of a self-determined course. Their sinful desires were bubbling inside of them. I guess we could say sexual purity got locked away with truth (18), so they could live the way they wanted. It makes sense that when the spiritual is shut out, the flesh steps into the spotlight. It’s “The Lord of the Flies” (withdrawal of moral authority), but instead of violence and power, Paul says the result was more like a college fraternity (“Animal House”): an orgy of sexual immorality. (Gn. 6.1-5 could easily be the narrative of what Paul is talking about on a global scale.) Once “Love the Lord Your God” went by the wayside, the next victim was “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and the result was a corruption of human relationships, exemplified by the degrading of their bodies with one another.
When Paul wants to give an example that he considers to be extreme, that will give evidence to his point about false thinking, rebellion against God, sexual impurity, withdrawal of moral authority, and the corruption of human relationships, what comes first to his mind is homosexual sex. It’s exactly the same as Genesis 19 and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: when the writer wanted to illustrate with maximum power the godlessness and rebellion of the Canaanite culture, he took us to Sodom, which was not the place of idolatry or child sacrifice, but the city of homosexual expression. Paul takes us to the same setting. Homosexual sex, Paul says, is an “exchange”—a deliberate act of rebellion against God. Paul has already talked about sexual impurity, and could have left it there. But here he seems to key in on “natural” and “against nature,” the cultural systemic oppression of homosexual slavery in their culture, and the moral degradation of society at large. Paul is not warning his readers that they will incur the wrath of God if they do these things listed here and in the next number of verses, but that when God was pushed out, this was one of the first evidences of his absence. Homosexual intercourse, for Paul as for Moses in Genesis 19, provides a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s intentions, his character, and his love for us, and suppresses the truth in unrighteousness.
But we are not to think that homosexual sex is any different from any other sin that separates us from God. He goes on to list a dozen other things to let us know that we all stand on equal ground: dead in our sins, separated from God, and unable to help ourselves out of that situation. We all have a vested interest somewhere in wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slander, God-hating, insolent, arrogant, boastful, and disobedient to authority, especially parents. It’s not our place to condemn others (Rom. 2.1), for we have to realize that all of us stand equally guilty under the just judgment of a righteous God. No one has a secure footing to stand on to pronounce God’s judgment on others, or they are living in a dangerous fantasy world, oblivious to the truth that all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.