Having stated the means by which men are justified before the just and holy God, Paul must proceed to demonstrate why it is that men need to be justified at all. Against any who would claim that God’s Fatherhood over all men by virtue of being our Creator were such that He accepts us all unconditionally, Paul asserts that God’s righteous wrath is poured out from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness. And if this were not plain enough, Paul further states the primary reason why God’ wrath is revealed; those who are ungodly and unrighteous are those who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. It is not merely that evil acts are counted as unrighteousness, nor is it only that acts leading to evil consequences encompass unrighteousness, but rather any thought contrary to, any deed out of accordance with, any lack of conformity unto the truth is ungodly, unrighteous, and deserving of God’s righteous wrath.
Those who would complain that the knowledge of God is hidden, or that it is insufficient to condemn anyone have the rebuke of Paul to answer. The truth of God is evident to all men, because God made it evident o them. The New American Standard translation I am using says, “that which is known about God is evident within them.” What else testifies within the mind of man concerning the reality of God and his guiltiness of sin but the conscience? In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher tells us that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. Many times in the Old Testament we are told that God’s Spirit is the One who gives wisdom and knowledge to men to understand all things. The knowledge of architecture necessary to build the tabernacle and its articles of worship was granted by God to his appointed builders. What Paul says in brief we may affirm in full, that all knowledge and the conviction of it within our minds is wrought by the mind of God and by His Spirit enlightening us to know. The different between the genius of Mozart in his youth and the insanity of Nietzsche in his agedness comes not from fate, nor evolution, nor their own skill of thought and apprehension, but by the Will and work of God to enlighten the mind and condition the soul by means of many circumstances.
But it is not only our conscience that testifies to the reality of God, which we in our sin suppress. It has been visibly seen in Creation as the product of God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power, and His divine nature. Although the natural world does not function as convincing proof of God’s Being—for how would we know if the apostle Paul did not speak to us God’s revelation of this truth?—yet men marvel at the complexity, the power, and the intricate logical connections evident in nature. The invisible attributes of God, His logical mind, are reflected in the knowledge of geometry as well as in the universal law whereby all men consider love, peace, faithfulness, and other invisible attributes—though they seek their own standard for them. The eternal power of God is reflected in the forces we spy in nature that God uses to both create and destroy as well as uphold what we observe with our senses. Is not the power of the Sun, which sustains, by God’s Will, all the growth and security of life on earth a fitting example of the eternal power of God, which no doubt exceeds the power of the sun infinitely? God’s divine nature is revealed in the sublimity we experience at our great finitude in this existence. Who has not seen the majesty of nature and marveled at its immensity and endurance in comparison to one’s own feeble and fleeting lifespan? The recognition of our finitude is only explained by the comparison to something longer lasting, and in nature we are brought by an analogy to understand the greatness of God’s divinity, that He is above all immensity and finitude. Yet all of these testimonies of Creation that stand as evidence of conviction are not enough to prove to the blinded heart the true nature and purpose of God. While its evidence is not enough to prove the purpose of God, it is enough to convict us all of our guiltiness in denying Him the authority and worship He commands.
Here Paul brings the conviction to its apex, that all men having this knowledge of God are condemned in it because they refuse to honor God as He is known, nor to give Him thanks for His Providence, but instead they invent fictions from their foolish hearts, which have been so perpetuated that they no longer recognize the testimony of God in the things He has made, nor in their own consciences. Where else can we see so clearly this tendency of the human heart but in our first parents, Adam and Eve. Surely Eve understood the attributes, power, and divinity of God enough to know that there was nothing that she could do that would make her like Him, and yet she believed the lies of the deceiver who promised two separate falsehoods—that she would not truly die upon eating the forbidden fruit, and that it held for her rewards greater than God Himself was willing to give to her. What impunity against God’s holy nature! What is worse, Adam chose to believe his wife though God Himself had spoken the words of life directly to him, and had taken such great care in providing Adam with his counterpart. Let us recognize in this historical truth that we should not place our trust in what our senses reveal, nor in what others speak to us alone, but by the Word of God must we think and act.
Humanity, created with minds to know and wills to accomplish great things, exchanged the wisdom of God for the foolishness of self-sufficiency, that is, self-destruction, and in so choosing their wisdom became foolishness, and their profession of knowledge proves to be false. Let not the power of men turn away your heart. There is no knowledge, nor power, nor wisdom that is so great as to match the knowledge and power of God revealed in His Word. The miracles of science, of philosophy, of the rich and famous—for all the wonders that they can produce—they have still never been able to make what is false become that which is true. For those who desire the truth, which comes only by God speaking by His Word, are wise although all the world considers them to be fools.
The foolishness of men is revealed in having exchanged the glory of God, which does not change, nor is it subject to corruption; for that which is constantly changing and characterized by corruption. Men worship natural beasts, themselves, or the fictions hung upon these material and finite beings rather than worshipping their Creator and the One who sustains all life, including and especially their own lives.
Yet God, rich in mercy as He is, did not obliterate humanity entirely, yet He gave them over to the consequences of their desires. All who lust after impurity risk the further corruption of their bodies not because of natural laws inevitably existing, but because of God orchestration of His Creation through which He does sometimes draw men to Himself as well as through which He also destroys men by their own lusts. Is it not the experience of so many who have defiled themselves to have shame not only before men, but within their own hearts? The shame of consequences resulting from sin is God’s grace to those who repent and God’s condemnation of those who continue to reject Him as their Lord and Savior.
Paul again touches on the reason why men are judged and condemned in their body as well as in their mind. They have forsaken the truth for lies and poured forth their desires upon created things rather than God, their Creator. But God is not at a loss because of their rejection, for God remains blessed forever as a result of His self-sufficient Being, and by the will and power of His purpose to bring about His own glory. Do we not see the great contrast here presented between humanity and God? Humanity is full of impurity, deceit, lies, corruption, and finite imperfection whereas God is all of purity, all of truth, all of incorruption, and all of infinite and eternal blessedness.
Having exchanged the truth for a lie, God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts. So says verse twenty-four. Here we see in more detail what are the objects and fruit of such lusts. Degrading passions. The exchange of the natural functions of human sexuality for the unnatural is a lowering of our created nature. What God has designed humanity mocks by forsaking the relations between husband and wife and pursuing adulterous intercourse as well as homosexual and beastial intercourse. Whatever the manifestation of these unnatural lusts—and perhaps it is best to emphasize that unnaturalness of adultery, for it is the sin least condemned in our present age—they degrade the human to something lower than God’s intended purpose. And is it a wonder that shame should follow?
Whereas the unnatural lusts of women were expressed in the previous verse, here Paul turns to the unnatural lusts of men, whose passions for other men burned within them, as though uncontrollably. Not only was this reckless abandonment of God’s Creative order a spiritual evil, but God’s wisdom has designed Creation in such a way that a breach of His order also reaps the physical consequences of sickness, pain, and even death. The injustice of men is not beyond the justice of God, and this is precisely the point that Paul wishes to bring to bear upon the minds of the Romans—no matter the temporary benefits, no matter the intellectual and emotional excuses for sin, God shall punish the iniquity that is evident to us, though we deny it.
Paul continues to emphasize the willful unbelief of humanity and the longsuffering of God to both tolerate sinfulness, yet not without the justice of providing painful consequences for their sin. For if men have been so willful as to ignore God and pay Him no acknowledgement, God has abandoned them to their own devices, to their depraved minds and all the hateful acts to which those minds set their aims.
For all men of this nature are filled with unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, and gossip—such vices that we would all condemn in others are what we would embrace for ourselves in one way or another, seeking our own benefit. For who has not thought wickedness, greed, or envy? Who has not hated, nor born ill will, a lying heart, or malice for another? Who has not reveled in speaking of another’s misfortune, failure, or mistakes to another? It is our own hearts that condemn us according to the words of Paul.
Still further we are slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobedient to parents. Who has not spoken ill of another, more yet who has not regretted that circumstances that God has brought, and questioned His goodness? Who has not stood firm in will against all wisdom? Who has not thought well of himself and also told another of his appreciation? Will there ever be an end to the ways in which we create opportunity and fulfillment of sin? And is there ever a point in life where our will to be our own authority has not caused our parents’s grief, nor our lack of care for them as well?
We too lack understanding, are worthless to trust, have not love, nor mercy. How Paul’s indictments seem to build in intensity. Who would claim their own ignorance? Yet we know nothing but by God’s grace. Who would consider themself to be unfaithful? Yet who do we betray more than ourselves, whom we love the most? And this shows us that we truly do not know how to love, for who betrays what they love? And though we may forgive ourselves, we despise our nature and wish ourselves to be something other than we are, having no mercy for the pitiful creatures we have made ourselves to be. And though these words are directed to the inner man, we may pull back and also notice that the criticisms apply to our treatment of others as well. And above all others, we forsake God first and foremost.
And all of this vileness, in what state is it accomplished? With a knowledge of the law that convicts our hearts of stone to no avail. We know that evil deserves its fullest measure, and yet we continue in our sinful thoughts and behaviors, and if we often feel ashamed, we are more often proud of our accomplishments, and especially when in our sin we escape the punishment of the law. Many puzzle over the example that Augustine gives in his confessions of stealing the fruit and feelings great remorse over it in retrospect. Yet it is this example that approves Paul’s words here. For though we have nothing to gain from our sin, we so often act in willful rebellion against the law for the very purpose of showing ourselves masters of it by our breaking. Yet we have no power above what God has given, and surely His justice shall no be escaped, though all our hearts may hope in such thoughts, and foolishly.