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We sometimes think of the second half of the first chapter of Romans as a discourse about atheists. (And indeed, according to Romans 1 the answer to the question “Does God believe in atheists?” is “no.”)

But in reality, it’s a universal text that applies to all of us apart from Christ—what we are, what we do, and what we would do apart from God’s restraining and redeeming grace, with graphic examples to illustrate our truth-suppression and idolatrous identity.

Here’s an attempt to start to think through this sobering section of Romans.

What do all of us know?

(1) We know God himself.

(2) We know God’s decree.

(3) We know God’s judgment—that those who practice sinful things deserve death.

What is our responsibility?

We are without excuse.

How clear is the evidence for God’s knowability?

What can be known about God is plain.

Who showed us the evidence for God?

God himself has shown us what can be known about him.

What is it about God that every one of us knows?

We have clearly perceived God’s invisible attributes (= his eternal power and divine nature).

Where do we see God’s invisible attributes?

In the things that God has made.

What do we fail to do in response?

(1) We fail to honor God as God.

(2) We fail to give thanks to God.

(2) We fail to acknowledge God.

What do we do instead of honoring and thanking God?

We suppress the truth.

How?

By our unrighteousness.

What do we claim about our thinking?

We claim to be wise.

What are we in reality?

We are fools.

What happened to our minds?

We became futile in our thinking.

What happened to our hearts?

Our foolish hearts were darkened.

What is the result?

We exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling

  • mortal man
  • birds
  • animals
  • creeping things

We exchanged the truth of God for a lie.

What did we do with created things?

(1) We worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.

(2) We served the creature rather than the Creator.

What is the result of this idolatry?

God gave us up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.

What kind of impurity?

The dishonoring of our bodies among ourselves.

How did we become entangled in dishonorable passions?

God gave us up to dishonorable passions.

Which dishonorable passions did women commit?

Women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.

Which dishonorable passions did men commit?

The men 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.

What does God do to us for failing to acknowledge him?

God gave us up to a debased mind.

To do what?

To do what ought not to be done.

What are we filled with?

All manner of

  • unrighteousness
  • evil
  • covetousness
  • malice

We are full of

  • envy
  • murder
  • strife
  • deceit
  • maliciousness

What are we?

We are

  • gossips
  • slanderers
  • haters of God
  • insolent
  • haughty
  • boastful
  • inventors of evil
  • disobedient to parents
  • foolish
  • faithless
  • heartless
  • ruthless

What do we know?

God’s decree.

What is God’s decree?

Those who practice such sinful things deserve to die.

What do we do?

(1) We do these sinful things.

(2) We give approval to those who practice these sinful things.

What does God do in response?

God reveals his wrath from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

Is there any hope?

The gospel.

What is the gospel?

The power of God for salvation.

For who?

To everyone who believes—to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

What is revealed in the gospel?

The righteousness of God, from faith to faith.

As Habakkuk 2:4 says, “The righteous shall live by faith.”


Romans 1:16-32

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 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.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 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.

28 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. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.


Addendum

For those who struggle to see why Paul would use homosexuality as his prime example of idolatry, I’d recommend this sermon from John Piper. Piper’s most profound insight here is that Paul sees a “dramatization” of Christ and the Church in Christ-centered heterosexual marriage, and that he also sees a dramatization of idolatry in same-sex sexual behavior, as men and women unite with images of themselves.

The reason Paul focuses on homosexuality in these verses is because it is the most vivid dramatization in life of the profoundest connection between the disordering of heart-worship and the disordering of our sexual lives. I’ll try to say it simply, though it is weighty beyond words.

We learn from Paul in Ephesians 5:31-32 that, from the beginning, manhood and womanhood existed to represent or dramatize God’s relation to his people and then Christ’s relation to his bride, the church. In this drama, the man represents God or Christ and is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. The woman represents God’s people or the church. And sexual union in the covenant of marriage represents pure, undefiled, intense heart-worship. That is, God means for the beauty of worship to be dramatized in the right ordering of our sexual lives.

But instead, we have exchanged the glory of God for images, especially of ourselves. The beauty of heart-worship has been destroyed. Therefore, in judgment, God decrees that this disordering of our relation to him be dramatized in the disordering of our sexual relations with each other. And since the right ordering of our relationship to God in heart-worship was dramatized by heterosexual union in the covenant of marriage, the disordering of our relationship to God is dramatized by the breakdown of that heterosexual union.

Homosexuality is the most vivid form of that breakdown. God and man in covenant worship are represented by male and female in covenant sexual union. Therefore, when man turns from God to images of himself, God hands us over to what we have chosen and dramatizes it by male and female turning to images of themselves for sexual union, namely their own sex. Homosexuality is the judgment of God dramatizing the exchange of the glory of God for images of ourselves. (See the parallel uses of “exchange” in verses 25 and 26.)

Piper’s follow-up sermon is also worth reading, especially as he gives counsel to those struggling with same-sex desire, as well as advice to parents.


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14 thoughts on “What Are We Apart from Christ?”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “Here’s an attempt to start to think through this sobering section of Romans.”

    This attempt is liturgical in scope! Quite cool! Thanks JT!

    “For those who struggle to see why Paul would use homosexuality as his prime example of idolatry”

    Apostle Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If one is going to take issue with homosexual sin as a prime example of idolatry, then take issue with the Holy Spirit.

  2. Back in the real world says:

    “the righteous shall live by faith”, but they often fall back into the same cycle starting again and again. Worse still, the characteristics of many “believers” are the same as the debased:

    gossips
    slanderers
    haters of God
    insolent
    haughty
    boastful
    inventors of evil
    disobedient to parents
    foolish
    faithless
    heartless
    ruthless

    In theory, the saving power of the Gospel transforms lives, but in reality, it’s rarely seen.

  3. @back in the real world

    “In theory, the saving power of the Gospel transforms lives, but in reality, it’s rarely seen.”

    I would just say that in Romans 1 it is bleak but we need to be careful not to come out with the attitude that, “this is how it is”. You have to remember that Paul wrote I and II Corinthians and still greeted them, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” I Cor. 1:2-3

    Pointing the finger back at myself because I wish I was more like Paul in doing both, recognizing the sin but seeing the gospel most supremely.

    Thank you for posting this Justin, I appreciate the reminder.

    Your boasting friend,

    Tim

  4. JK says:

    Justin, is the addendum you posted transcribed from Piper’s Part 1 sermon?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      JK: Yes, I linked to the wrong one. I’ve fixed the post a bit. Thanks!

  5. Timothy says:

    This is a very good outline of the passage but in order to understand the passage we need to think through the place of the passage in the sustained argument of Paul that runs from 1:16 to 15:13. This is too large a task for this posting but the opening sentence seems to me to offer the least likely answer to the question (and kind of rejects it). There is very little evidence for atheism existing in the time of Paul at least as we understand atheism today. There seem to be two targets that might be relevant. If we depend on Wisdom of Solomon we might think that the target is the Gentile world and possible confirmation of this may be found in the emphasis upon homosexuality which was quite prevalent in the Greek world. If we look rather to Psalm 106:20 we might see the Jew as the target. In neither case is it the atheist but the idolater, the believer if you like but the believer in the radically wrong thing, who is the target. We can argue that the atheist is an idolater in his own way (I am reminded of the description of Lord John Russell as a self-made man who worshipped his creator) but idolatry is certainly far wider than atheism. We may therefore see the target as including other religions but also, if the target is seen as including the Jews, Christianity in many of its manifestations, perhaps including versions to which we are wedded.

  6. John says:

    Um…Timothy, I’m not sure where you heard the atheism thing, but that simply isn’t so. The Epicureans, for one, and other “atomist” groups were naturalistic atheists. The “at least as we understand it today” caveat doesn’t work because we know of atheism past and present – including the above mentioned groups.

    1. Timothy says:

      My thanks to John’s challenge of my glib assertion. But there is more to say in defence of my assertion than he seems to credit. Epicurus and the philosophy he founded (see also Lucretius) did not deny the existence of the gods but their relevance to everyday life. The gods lived in their realm of blessedness and did not interact with humanity. It is much closer to deism than atheism.
      My assertion was based upon a book that I have dipped into but shamefully never read:

      At the Origins of Modern Atheism
      by Michael J. Buckley
      Here is a review of the book.

      The rise of atheism in the modern world is a religious phenomenon unprecedented in history, both in the number of its adherents and in the security of its cultural establishment. How did so revolutionary a conviction as this arise? What can theological reflection learn from this massive shift in religious consciousness?

      In this book, Michael J. Buckley investigates the origins and development of modern atheism and argues convincingly that its impetus lies paradoxically in the very attempts to counter it. Although modern atheism finds its initial exponents in Denis Diderot and Paul d’Holbach in the eighteenth century, their works bring to completion a dialectical process that reaches back to the theologians and philosophers of an earlier period. During the seventeenth century, theologians such as Leonard Lessius and Marin Mersenne determined that in order to defend the existence of god, religious apologetics must become philosophy, surrendering as its primary warrant any intrinsically religious experience or evidence. The most influential philosophers of the period, René Descartes and Isaac Newton, and the theologians who followed them accepted this settlement, and the new sciences were enlisted to provide the foundation for religion.

      Almost no one suspected the profound contradictions that this process entailed and that would eventually resolve themselves through the negation of god. In transferring to other areas of human experience and inquiry its fundamental responsibility to deal with the existence of god, religion dialectically generated its own denial. The origins and extraordinary power of modern atheism lie with this progressive self-alienation of religion itself.

      Thus I still maintain that atheism as we understand it today, of ‘modern atheism’ in the terminology of Buckley, is a meaningful concept.

      The basic exegetical point I was making remains, even if allowance is made for the possibility of atheism existing in rarified philosophical circles, that Paul was unlikely to be addressing atheists but idolaters, the religious but the wrongly religious. Surely this is confirmed by Romans 2.

  7. Brad says:

    Really, really good post, JT.

  8. Mike says:

    Created sick, commanded to be well.

    1. Causes you to depend on, and love, grace, doesn’t it?

  9. Matt says:

    Awesome post JT.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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