God Gave Them Up
God Gave Them Up
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” Of course, this idea wasn’t new to Oscar Wilde. Human beings have been saying things like this from the time we were cast out of the Garden. “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” And most things don’t turn out to be the good we thought they would be. Psalm 81 sums this up both succinctly and tragically. In the Psalm the Lord first speaks of his rescue of Israel from her bondage in Egypt:
In distress you called, and I delivered you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you!
O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
There shall be no strange god among you;
you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. (Psalm 81:7-10)
The Lord heard Israel’s as she cried out for deliverance from her bondage. Because he is good, because he is faithful to his covenant promises, the Lord came to Israel’s rescue. And in the wilderness he not only cared for his people, but he reminded them as the Pslamist writes, “there shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow to a foreign god.” Trust me, the Lord says. “Open your mouth and I will fill it.” But that’s not how things went. The Lord goes on in the second half of the psalm:
“But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
I would soon subdue their enemies
and turn my hand against their foes.
Those who hate the Lord would cringe toward him,
and their fate would last forever.
But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Psalm 81:11-16)
If God’s people would only acknowledge him, if they would only walk in his ways he would subdue their enemies. If they would only worship him and him alone, he would feed them with the finest wheat and the sweetest honey. But instead they have not listened to the Lord. They have wilfully refused to submit to his authority as their Creator and their Redeemer. The result is that God has given them what they wish: he has given them over to their own stubborn hearts and to their own foolish counsel. And it’s turned out to be a disaster for Israel—worse than her slavery in Egypt ever was.
This is Israel’s story, but it’s also the story of the human race. As we saw last week in Romans 1:18-23, Paul laid out our problem. As a people, we humans, despite being surrounded by all the evidence we could possible want that there is a Creator, we have rejected and denied him. He promised us good. He gave us everything. In his presence was life. All we had to do was open our mouths and he would fill them. But instead of giving worship and glory to our Creator, we chose to believe the lies of the serpent. We exchanged the glory of the Creator for the false promises of the creature. We became idolaters. We gave up the wisdom of God and submitted our minds to foolish thinking. We turned away from the light of God and our hearts became darkened. Paul drew on the language of Psalm 106 to describe our rebellion: “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” Adam and Eve had seen the goodness and faithfulness of God like no one ever has, but they chose instead to follow the creature rather than the Creator. Israel, again, had seen the goodness and faithfulness of God in the Exodus. In the plagues they had seen the wrath of God against the powerless false gods of Egypt. They had seen the power of God over the sea—over Creation itself—as he parted the waters and led them through on dry land. They ate God’s manna in the wilderness. And then they cast a calf out of gold and chose to worship it instead of God. It’s a vivid picture of minds given over to foolishness and hearts given over to darkness. As I said last week, we often think of our problem as a sin problem, but Paul takes us into the depths of our rebellious hearts and shows us what lies below our sin. Paul shows us that our basic problem as humans is a worship problem. Our core problem is idolatry. We worship the creature and the creation—whether that’s ourselves, or nature, or money, power, sex, or violence—instead of the Creator.
This is just what Israel did and the Psalmist says that the Lord gave her over to her foolish counsel and stubborn heart. And this is what Paul gets at in the final portion of Romans 1, beginning with verse 25.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24-25)
Three times Paul uses this phrase, “God gave them up”. He’s working up to his statement in Chapter 3—one we’ve heard many, many times—that the wages of sin is death. But why is that so? Why does sin earn us death? Paul has shown us the first step: It’s to reject God’s truth for lies. The first step is idolatry. With God there is life, but we’ve rejected that life. We’ve believed the lie that somehow on our own we can find something even better than the good God has offered. We’ve believed the lie that we ourselves can become gods and be masters our own destinies. And rather than invest in the life of God, we’ve invested in a lie that has nothing to offer but death. But if that’s what we insist on, God will let us follow our passions and our lusts. He will let us try to be our own masters. He will give us over to the lust of our hearts. But we inevitably dishonour the bodies God has given us. The vocation God gave us is to bear his image, but the moment we reject him is the moment we begin to deface the image of God. Brothers and Sisters, we reap what we sow. There is no life apart from God. He is the source and there is no other. If we reject him, death is inevitable.
In verses 26 and 27 Paul now gives us an example of how this plays out.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and 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
Why does Paul single out homosexuality as an example of what happens when God gives us over to our passions? Remember that here in Chapter 1 he’s been explaining the human predicament in the terms of the first three chapters of Genesis. There, at the very beginning of the story we see God creating human beings in his own image, we see him giving us our vocation, and we hear him giving his command to be fruitful and to multiply. Right there at the beginning we have a beautiful picture of man and woman as complementary and it’s a picture of the goodness and life-bearing nature of God’s Creation. Even we as creatures have a role in bringing life into the world—and that’s part of Creation’s goodness. And right there at the beginning we have a picture of men and women, very different in so many ways, but both necessary to do the task God has given us to do, both of us necessary to be the stewards God created us to be. Adam couldn’t do it alone. He needed his wife.
Some people have argued that Paul singles out homosexuality here just because it was often accepted—or at least common—in the pagan world, while Jews saw it as an abomination. Some have argued that Paul was here pointing his finger at the Emperor Nero, who was known for his sexual depravity, both homo-and heterosexual. And some people in the last few decades have tried to explain away what Paul’s saying here, arguing that he wasn’t condemning loving, monogamous relationships, but that he was singling out pagan temple prostitution. Remember that the Greeks and Romans worshipped fertility gods and that “worship” often involved hiring both male and female prostitutes. Some have tried to argue away what Paul says here by saying that he was condemning not homosexuality in general, but the exploitation of young boys by old men. All of these arguments ignore the context Paul has so clearly built up. Paul singles out homosexuality to say: This is not what men and women were created for. Paul holds out homosexuality as an example of the way in which human beings have rejected God’s purpose for us and his good commands. Again, the very first thing Scripture tells us about men and women is that we fulfil God’s intent for us as we complement each other and work together. And the very first command God gives us is to be fruitful and to multiply. But for men to have sex with men and for women to have sex with women is to reject both God’s design and his intent for us as human beings.
I think it’s important, too, to be clear about what Paul is not saying here. As modern people we have a tendency to sort of individualise what Paul is saying and as a result we wrongly see him singling out certain wicked people who practise homosexual acts. Paul is not saying here that everyone who is attracted to the same sex or even that everyone who engages in homosexual practise has got there because they’ve engaged in certain acts of idolatry or because they’ve made a deliberate choice to reject heterosexuality or heterosexual desires. That may certainly be true in some cases, but Paul isn’t talking about individuals. Paul is talking about the human race. What Paul’s saying is that the presence in our world of these practises that twist and distort God’s design and intent for men and women, the presence of these practises that dishonour our bodies and deface the image of God is evidence of our ungodliness as a race. It’s evidence of our idolatry as a race. That these practises are out there, that they’re common, that they’re acceptable to so many is clear evidence that our rejection of the Creator has turned creation upside-down, made a mess of it, corrupted it.
Having singled out homosexual practise, Paul knew that there would be people in the Roman church who would immediately start thinking just as many people today start thinking: Ah! Those wicked people. They’re what’s wrong with the world! It’s easy to start thinking judgementally and self-righteously about “big” sins like this. This was Israel’s problem and we see Jesus confronting it throughout the Gospels: we’re clean, we’re holy, we’re the chosen, we’re not the problem—everyone else is! In fact, Paul reserves his strongest rebuke for Chapter 2 and it’s a rebuke not against people who, for example practise homosexuality, but against the people who have been called to be light to the world, but who instead have become darkness—who have kept God’s light to themselves. And so he goes on in verses 28-31. For the third time he uses this phrase, “God gave them up”.
And 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. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
If we want to reject the wisdom of God in favour of foolish and debased thinking, God will allow us to do so, but there are consequences. We’ll find ourselves in every kind of evil. And Paul lays out this list. It’s not comprehensive. Instead, he goes for rhetorical flourish and our English Standard Version captures it in the final four things Paul lists. In Greek these words all end with the same sound and our translation captures it with “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”. Tom Wright, in his translation, captures it very well too: “unwise, unfaithful, unfeeling, uncaring”. Homosexuality may not be your particular sin, but Paul still has us all covered. Who amongst us hasn’t been guilty of envy, of deceit, of creating strife and division? Who hasn’t been guilty at some point or another of maliciousness—doing something just for spite? None of us are murderers, but we’ve all been guilty of murder in our hearts, as Jesus put it when he talked about hating our neighbours. How many of us haven’t gossiped about someone or slandered them? How many of us haven’t been disobedient to our parents? How many of us aren’t covered somehow in those last four stinging accusations: foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless—unwise, unfaithful, unfeeling, uncaring.
In singling out homosexuality, Paul reminds us that there’s nothing arbitrary about God’s laws and commands. God isn’t just a celestial killjoy in the sky trying to keep us from having fun, nor is he giving us arbitrary and hard-to-understand rules so that he can punish us when we break them. Paul’s point in taking us back to Genesis—and also in taking us back to the story of Israel and the Exodus—is to stress the goodness of God and the good he intended for us from the beginning and the goodness he continues to intend for us today. He created us to flourish. He created us to bear his image and to be his stewards. He created us to share in his life. And sin, whatever form it takes, is sin precisely because it rejects and undermines God’s desire to see us flourish in his creation. Sin is sin because it undermines goodness and life. And so the just punishment—the natural consequence, if you will—for sin is death. When Adam and Eve rejected God and refused to worship him as their King and good Sovereign, the consequence was that they could no long live in his presence, they could no longer share in his life. They were cast out of the garden and they died. When Israel rejected God as her good King, she was handed over to her enemies and subjected to death—ten of her twelve tribes wiped out, ceased to exist. And so with us. If we reject the life of God, the natural consequence is separation from God and the death that results. God will not force us to live in his presence. If we choose in our foolish minds and darkened hearts to rebel and to reject his goodness, he will warn us, but he will not stop us. The world around us is the evidence of this.
Verse 32 is particularly chilling. Paul writes:
Though 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.
Paul moves from the sin itself and those who practise it to the people who give it their approval. And you might wonder how approving of sin is worse than actually committing the sin. Brothers and Sisters, where there is still an acknowledgement that sin is sin, there is still hope for repentance. Imagine two men guilty of murder. One of them admits his sin. He admits that it was wrong, something done in the heat of passion. He regrets it. He wishes he could go back and undo it. He weeps with sorrow over the fact that he did it. The other one is proud of what he did. He doesn’t regret it. He brags about it. The only thing he regrets is that he got caught. There’s hope for the man who knows his sin and is repentant. There is no hope for the second man. And just so for the world. There is still hope for sinners who know what sin is, but when the world proclaims sin a virtue and virtue as sin there is no hope.
And that’s what Paul’s getting at here. Humanity has reached a point that began with idolatry and progressed to sin and has now moved on, not just to a denial that our sin is sin, but to actually taking pride in our sin. Human beings pride themselves in having explained way God. Human beings pride themselves in our disobedience. Sexual immorality—not just homosexual, but heterosexual, too—serve as prime examples today as they did in Paul’s time. We pride ourselves on our openness to any and all forms of depravity. And when a society gets to this low, sin itself becomes hard to avoid. The knowledge of it is stricken from the record. We work overtime to educate our children, to teach them that sin is virtue and that virtue is sin. They no longer need to go through the steps from idolatry, to sin, to denial—as a society we simply shove sin down their throats and tell them it’s the height of virtue, whether it’s sex or racism or greed or violence.
The good news, and this gets back to what Paul has been saying about the gospel, is that God continues to be in control. Even as he allows us the freedom to reject him, even as he gives us the freedom to reject the ordering of his Creation, we cannot escape his sovereignty. God has handed us over to our own foolish and sinful desires, but our freedom is still bounded by the limits God has set. Brothers and Sisters, this gives us reason to hope even when things around us seem so hopeless. All of this is evidence of God’s continuing sovereignty. Human beings are still the same creatures that God made despite our rejection of him and despite our refusal to acknowledge him. Even as we do our best to deny our Creator, the very creaturely instincts he built into us continue to bear witness to him. In our fallenness we’re caught between our freely chosen wilfulness on the one hand and God’s sovereignty and the order of his Creation on the other.
And this brings us back to Paul’s statement that the good news about Jesus is good news because it reveals the wrath of God against ungodliness and unrighteousness. Paul shows us that God’s wrath and God’s righteousness are like two sides of the same coin. Both his wrath and his righteousness express his Creation as he created it to be. Both his wrath and his righteousness work to set the world to rights. In his righteousness, in his faithfulness God seeks what is best for his Creation and in his wrath he unleashes his justice against those who would subvert the goodness of his Creation and his good will for it.
For ourselves we see too that our own wrath, played out as ungodliness and unrighteousness, played out as rebellion against God and his goodness, and a selfishness that foolishly seeks our good over the good of others, dishonours us, makes us less than human, leads us away from God and from his life, and ultimately brings us death. But righteousness on our part, faith in God’s covenant faithfulness, trust and dependence on our Creator give life. Trust in Jesus brings forgiveness and deliverance from our bondage to sin and to death. Jesus gives us hope for God’s future in which all has been set right and made new.
There is a light in the midst of the darkness. The Lord invites us to his Table this morning to remind us of that light. He invites us here to receive the light again as he gives us his very self in the bread and in the wine. Here he reminds us that while we were still sinners, still rebels, out of love for us he gave his Son for us. Here we’re given again a taste of the forgiveness and the life of God in Jesus. Here again we are reminded that Jesus came not to condemn the condemned, but to redeem the condemned. Here again Jesus pulls God’s future into the present and gives us a foretaste of the world in which everything has been made new. And from his Table Jesus sends us out into the world as the Church—to bear his light in the darkness, to announce his kingdom, and to proclaim the servant King who died and rose again for the sake of his enemies.
Let us pray: Almighty God, thank you for the encouraging words of St. Paul, reminding us of your goodness and faithfulness. Thank you that even in your wrath we see your goodness at work setting right what has been wronged and corrupted. We confess this morning our own rebellion—our idolatry and our sin—and we thank you for Jesus, your Son and our King who died that might be forgiven and who rose that we might once again live in your presence and know your life. Send us out in the world now, we pray, to be the light you have called us to be. Give us the grace to live our lives trusting in your faithfulness and your goodness as we proclaim our King Jesus. We ask this through him. Amen.