It has been my intention on this blog to stay away from controversy for the sake of controversy and simply focus on encouraging my sisters in Christ to love the Lord, obey Him, think biblically, and live for His glory wherever He has placed them.
And so when my newsfeed exploded with hysteria last week after the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, while I made a few thoughtful posts about it (and quickly deactivated my Facebook account in order to avoid all the mess for a while), I thought I’d just not bring it up on the blog. Let this be a more peaceful place. An encouraging place without all the fuss.
And while I still want this blog to be a place of encouragement and peace, it has occurred to me that sometimes the most needful encouragement meets us in the place where we are most troubled and confused by the world around us.
Tackling Romans chapter one on this blog wasn’t on my agenda at all until I saw that, as I was about to start a new Bible-read-through plan this July, the first two readings just happened to be from two of the most hotly-contested passages of our day: Romans 1-2 and Genesis 1-3. Huh, that’s timely, I thought.
And so, with the boxing match of current public discourse as a backdrop, I have been meditating on one of the very passages at the heart of the debate being had among professing Christians: What is Romans chapter one talking about? Are homosexual acts sinful? Or are they permissible within “loving, committed relationships”? And what of the warning to those who judge in chapter two? Is there any room for judgment at all?
What I have seen hashed-out online lately is a match between two very different interpretations. In the Left Corner we have the more recently-developed view that Paul had in mind some kind of abusive relationships that were common in his day but which are foreign to the way most people practice homosexuality today. Along with this often comes the assertion that the whole passage is focused primarily on idolatry and not the list of behaviors themselves. After all, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” I mean, it even has an “Amen” after it. This, they would say, was Paul’s main concern, not some behavioral by-product or object of idolatry. And besides, even if you read this passage as though homosexual acts are sinful, the opening paragraph of chapter two says, “You have no excuse, you who pass judgment… You who judge practice the same things.” So come off it already! Don’t judge!
In the Right Corner we see the old “tried-and-true” and “red, white, and blue” conservatives who read chapter one and see only homosexuality and its condemnation. Just one reading of this passage ought to deliver a knock-out punch, they figure, but alas, people have come up with all kinds of ways of doing interpretational gymnastics to avoid the obvious conclusion that homosexuality is sinful, because: a) “professing to be wise, they became fools” and b) “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” And let’s not forget this jab at the end of chapter one: “Though they know that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only practice them but give hearty approval to those who do.”
But is that the knock-out punch?
Sadly, when we debate issues such as this one, regardless of which “side” we’re on, we tend to resort to proof-texting, even when looking at and mostly sticking to a single passage (such as Romans 1) with our opponents. I believe that if we let Paul speak for himself, in his own context, we will have a much greater understanding of the situation and see that there have indeed been some blows landed by both sides, while the would-be knock-out punch, as far as Romans is considered, has been largely ignored.
Enter Paul, the referee of this boxing match. As we get started in this first round, or chapter, we’ll begin to see what he has to say, backing up to 1:15 to really get a feel for the context:
So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 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.
Our competitors on the Right and Left are likely both nodding along with a verse that they have enjoyed memorizing out-of-context sometime in their youth: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel!” Never mind the details, I’m not ashamed! Woot! Go Jesus! Yay, gospel!
I think these verses are extremely important—not just as a quick shot for boosting our morale in standing up for our faith, but for understanding where Paul is going in his unfolding discussion. So please, keep this bookend in mind. The details here are invaluable: Paul is about to “preach the gospel” to his Roman audience, and he says this gospel is for all people—“to the Jew first and also to the Greek”. Suffice it to say that Paul has in mind an audience of both Roman Jews and Roman gentiles, and we can gather from verse 7, which directs the letter’s greeting to “the beloved of God in Rome, called as saints”, that these are believers in Jesus. Hold on to that fact as we move forward.
Now on to verses 17-20:
For in it [that is, the gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…
Chew on this for a moment. Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, and His wrath is revealed from heaven. This passage is getting pretty legit. Righteousness and wrath. Seen in the Good News and the Creation. This is serious business. Not your typical lovey-dovey, feel-good message. This should get our attention. Paul is building up to something big, don’t you think?
…so that they are without excuse.
Whoa. No room for excuses? This is getting serious! But who are “they”??? To answer this question, we have to look back to verse 18, where we see who this pronoun “they” is referring to: “men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. So it would seem that the plain reading here is that the people who “suppress the truth of God” (which from this passage includes God’s “invisible attributes” and “eternal power and divine nature”), and who practice “unrighteousness and ungodliness,” are without excuse because of what God has revealed to them in His creation.
Now step back for a moment to consider Paul’s audience. Who are they again? Roman Jews and gentiles who have decided to follow Christ, right? So who’s cheering at this point? That’s right, the Jews. “Here, here! You tell them, Paul! We have always known the God who created everything, while the Greeks have long suppressed the truth in their wickedness! Totally tracking with you, Paul!” The gentiles, hopefully most of whom have left behind their former paganism and accompanying life of sin, may be feeling a sting of judgment, perhaps regret for where they’ve been, perhaps also, though, joy for having been rescued from the wrath of God mentioned here. Either way, both groups are attentive, the Jews to hear more affirmations of what they already believe, and the gentiles to find out, “Just where are we going with this?”
Next Paul expounds further on “they” in verse 21 through the end of the chapter one:
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise they became fools…
Interjection from the Right Corner: “There it is! They think they’re so wise, but they’re fools!”
Left Corner: “Oh, yeah, you speak of yourselves. Just wait for it…”
Back to Paul:
and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Left Corner: “Told you this was about idolatry! Who’s foolish now? Take that!”
Right Corner: “Of course it’s talking about idolatry right now, but that’s just to show the root cause of what’s coming. Wait for it…”
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.
Right Corner: “See? We’re talking sexual immorality now!”
For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Left Corner: “Like I said before, idolatry. BOOM!”
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
Right Corner: “God gave them over to homosexuality—which Paul calls ‘degrading passions’—because of their idolatry! Don’t you see it? This kind of defiling behavior is a judgment from God. Not to mention the fact that AIDS and other STDs are alluded to in this passage…” SMACK!
Left Corner: “You’re just reading your conservative opinions into this passage. If we look at the historical context, ‘degrading passions’ and ‘indecent acts’ are clearly referring to something other than the loving, committed relationships that gays desire to have today. Plus, the textual context is still idolatry. Here it comes…”
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer…
Left Corner: “See? Told ya so.” BAM!
Right Corner: Eye-roll. “That didn’t even hurt.”
…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;
Left Corner: “Yeah, I know a few people like that.” Glares at the Right Corner.
Right Corner: “Yeah, I do, too.” Glares at the Left Corner.
and although they know the ordinances of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Right Corner: BOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!! “Don’t you see? Homosexual sins are worthy of death! And clearly we are not to ‘give hearty approval’ to them! This is a no-brainer!”
Left Corner: “What about that list Paul just ripped through in verses 29-31? Oh, did you forget about those sins?” UPPERCUT!
Whew! That’s quite a fight! Forgive me for allowing the passage to get highjacked by those debaters!
Please permit me for a moment to remind you that we are not the only audience to have heard this message. Remember our friends back in Rome? The Jewish and gentile believers Paul was writing to? They’ve been listening to Paul, too. The Jews have interjected a few times with “Three cheers!” and “Amen!” to all that Paul has said thus far. The gentile believers, while some have been freed from their past idolatry and sin, are sitting somewhat uncomfortably in their seats as they hear the quick, confident Amens coming from their Jewish brethren. Perhaps they’re thinking, “Thanks, Paul, this is really helping them to accept me in the Lord. Now they’ll never let me get over my past, nor will they ever stop insisting on my becoming Jewish. Sheesh.”
We need to remember for a moment that Paul wasn’t writing directly to our current political situation (nor, dare I say as a student of history, to a question of whether or not homosexual acts are permissible as long as we call them “loving and committed”). The Scriptures are, of course, timeless, but they were written in time to a particular audience with particular needs. So while they do have application to our lives, and indeed our every situation, we must take care that we do not merely use them to make a point, but search them out to understand what God is saying to His people. So, without further adieu, let’s move on to round, I mean, chapter two.
Here’s how Paul kicks off the second chapter:
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment…
The Jewish believers in Paul’s audience must now be thinking, “Wait, what?” I suspect some in the Right Corner are thinking the same thing. The Left, of course, knew this was coming because it’s one of their favorite proof texts in this passage.
Paul keeps it coming through verse 3:
…for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?
Whoa, them’s fightin’ words. The Jewish Romans might be thinking now, “What’s going on? In chapter one it looked like Paul was on our side.” Ah, but Paul isn’t on anyone’s side. He is speaking forth the word of God. He has a purpose for all that he wrote in chapter one, but it wasn’t the purpose that you had, folks. Those who stand only to condemn others with what is written in chapter one have fallen for the bait Paul set for his Jewish listeners. Did you fall for it, too?
Those in the Left Corner feel pretty victorious at this point: “Told ya. You have no right to judge, you hypocrites!”
What’s this? Has the Left landed the knock-out blow?
Hardly. We aren’t even there yet.
If Paul’s purpose for writing chapter one wasn’t merely to decry the sins listed therein (though it does, in fact, decry them—all of them), then what is his purpose? What is he getting at?
This is where I think today’s discussion of this passage usually falls short. Both sides feel satisfied with their own “punches” even if the other side doesn’t feel that any were landed on them. Both usually walk away a little miffed but also a little more indignant, all the while missing the real gold to be mined in Romans. Instead of meditating on the word, they walk away rehearsing their punches.
And truth be told, both sides did land some legitimate punches. The problem is that neither side stops long enough to listen to Paul because they are far too busy using his words for their own purpose. Much, perhaps, like the Jews and Greeks in Rome.
Some less noble-minded Romans in Paul’s audience might have liked this sudden turn from talking about them (past or present) to talking about the Jews. Instead of hearing Paul’s rebuke of idolatry, immorality, and unrighteous attitudes and actions as it applied to them, they are now taking that passage and applying it to their competitors. Thus, as this letter is being read aloud in the ancient city of Rome, the hostility in the church there continues…
Is this Paul’s design? Is he trying to pit these two groups against each other? To make one group mighty uncomfortable and then make the other completely furious? What is he getting at?
Herein lies the problem with ending our discussion of Romans chapter one somewhere in chapter two. Most of the time, we’ll argue about what it means when Paul says, “you who judge practice the same things” and “Will you escape the judgment of God?” Maybe someone will even point out that “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” from 2:4. But we certainly don’t take our debate into the heart of Paul’s case against the Jews in the rest of chapter two—that would be totally off-topic, wouldn’t it?—so we miss much of their condemnation and the lessons to be learned from it, such as in verse 12: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law” (because, of course, chapter one established that these were “without excuse”), “and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (this would be what Paul introduced in 2:1-3); “for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” Or perhaps in verses 21-24: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written.”
But this isn’t it yet. We haven’t quite gotten to the knock-out punch. But we’re close. So very close. Hang with me.
You see, wrangling about Paul’s words, drawing our own conclusions without hearing his conclusion isn’t doing justice to the scriptures.
So just tell us! What is his conclusion? I’m glad you asked.
Let us begin Round Three. That is, let us look at chapter three, where Paul concludes this first, very foundational portion of his message to the Romans.
At first Paul consoles the freshly beaten-down Jews: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what benefit is circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God…” And he asserts in 3:3-8 that, though the unrighteousness of their ancestry and even their own current sorry state may give opportunity for God’s righteousness to be demonstrated, their unrighteousness is still unrighteousness, and God is still just in His judgment.
Now here comes the kicker in verse 9:
What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [the Greeks]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin…
Did you catch that? Paul just told us what he accomplished in both chapters one and two. This is hugely important if we are to interpret these passages as they were intended. “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” That’s it. That’s the knock-out punch. All the comments about Paul’s judgment of idolatry? True. All the comments about the sinfulness and shame of homosexual lust and acts? True. The insistence that Paul was only speaking of abusive, promiscuous, or idolatrous homosexual acts? Well, that one needs to be called what it is: rubbish. And historically and intellectually dishonest. But let’s continue: The accusation that many of us all-too-easily gloss over the list of sins in 1:29-31 that also come from being “given over”? True. The assertion that all who practice these things will be judged? True—whether we were the ones giving “hearty approval” or the ones speaking out against them. Paul’s argument that merely teaching what is right and having a religious heritage will not rescue you on Judgment Day? True.
Here is something very important we need to realize: neither “side” has landed the knock-out punch. Only Paul has. And he’s landed it on all of us. The title of this article is “Romans 1 and 2 Has Something for Everyone” for a very specific reason. There is only one thing that Paul gives to all of us in these first two, and even two-and-a-half chapters. Have you figured out what it is yet? That’s right. It’s condemnation.
Paul opens his letter to the Romans, a likely-divided group of Jewish and Greek believers, by leveling the playing field so that he can deliver the good news, the gospel of salvation which is for all people.
So as we engage on “issues”, let’s not lose sight of the much, much bigger picture: The truth that Paul wanted to drive home in order to calm the bickering among God’s people. The truth that he labored so carefully and logically and diligently to deliver so that we would, all of us, see our desperate need for redemption.
And so, in the closing remarks of Round Three (Romans 3:10-31), Paul ties together this condemnation with the believer’s new standing in Christ, bringing peace between two groups of people whose previous dealings have also been described by Paul in Ephesians as “enmity”:
’There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one’. … Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness… so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. …Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
Let all of that sink it. Re-read it if need be. That is where Paul has been heading all along.
Did you catch some wording in there that reminded you of our first bookend back in chapter one? “The righteousness of God has been manifested…”, “even the righteousness of God through faith…”, and “to demonstrate His righteousness”? What has Paul done with man-the-creature’s righteousness? He has abolished it. The immoral gentiles are called unrighteous, ungodly, truth-suppressors, fools, dishonored, indecent, in error, of depraved mind. But the would-be righteous Jews, the only people on earth who had been entrusted with the Law of God, are likewise called out for practicing the same things, being stubborn, unrighteous, unrepentant, storing-up-wrath, selfishly ambitious, disobedient, the cause of God’s name being blasphemed. The only righteousness upheld is God’s. In fact, there should be no mistaking it: the only righteousness to be found is God’s.
Knocked Senseless to Become Sensible
Now that we’re all laid out on the floor of the boxing ring with our eyes looking above (where they should be), let’s go ahead and swing full-circle and again discuss how any of this is relevant on a Christian woman’s blog. Like I said, my goal is to encourage my sisters in Christ to glorify God in all they do, and a part of that includes thinking biblically. While this Supreme Court ruling may not affect many of us directly, it has sparked a lot of discussion within the church–and within our own families. So most of us have been thinking at least somewhat about this topic. Many of us have either been celebrating sin or loudly protesting while ignoring our responsibility to vigilantly hate and put to death our own sins and to carefully and rightly divide God’s word.
There are, to be sure, many saints who are older and wiser than I am who have known these truths and been living them for much longer than I have been alive. I hope this has simply been a refreshing and encouraging read to you, and I welcome your wisdom to be added to this discussion.
But for those of us still defending ourselves, it is my prayer that we would have an ear to hear what Paul says to all of us. Refusing to repent of our own sin or way of thinking about sin is a grave mistake, regardless of what side we would have most-closely identified with at the start of this discussion.
I hope this article has challenged you to see God’s word for what it is, and not only through the lens of our current situation, not only as a tool for proving a point. Every passage of God’s word is powerfully instructive to every one of us. Romans chapter one (and two) is not just meant for “sinners”.
Well, I suppose it is, so long as we all recognize ourselves in that category.
As a wife and mother, I have found it helpful to examine this passage and to mine out its treasures so that I can renew my mind in God’s word rather than continue to allow it to be conformed to the “world” of opinion that bombards my newsfeed (whether that be a liberal or conservative “world”—God’s word is higher than those distinctions and their feeble boundaries). A fresh understanding of God’s truth, as it applies both to homosexual sin and my own pet sins and blind spots (be it my cursory glossing-over of the list in chapter one, or being unloving or unmerciful towards my husband and children), helps me to see that the only hope for “them” is the only hope for me—the glorious, infinite righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. And it reminds me that while there is a universal condemnation of sin—and even a universal condemnation of sinners—there is also a universal declaration of love in the gospel—“For God so loved the world” and “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”—which is equally capable of taking repentant sinners, both of the outwardly-idolatrous-and-immoral sort and of the self-idolatrous-and-righteous sort, and making both into something completely new.
*Though this article is rather long, it is not an exhaustive treatment of this subject (it is not intended to be). So if you would like to take another look at this passage and read a perhaps more straight-forward and less interrupted-by-a-boxing-match handling of today’s common arguments, may I also suggest this article: https://carm.org/does-romans-1-condemn-homosexuality *