Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Romans 1:18-32]
There are no “degrees of guilty” with God; it’s only guilty or not-guilty. This is a very controversial passage because people today do not believe that God can both be loving and be wrathful against sin. But He can. But He only pours out His wrath on sin—sin that people willingly choose, despite all of the clear evidence for God’s existence and power—which all people equally deserve.
As a result, people are without excuse. Romans 1:20
[Editor's note: this Bible study series started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
The Greatest Excuses Ever!
Have some fun with this. Ask your class to list some of the best excuses they’ve ever heard or used. One thing the internet does well is compile lists like these, so see how your class compares with these internet favorites:
[Millions of students skip school regularly.] Excuses to miss school. () “I had to organize the decorations for my dog’s birthday party.” () “I was there the entire time. You just didn’t notice me.” () “It was raining.” () “The garage door was broken and we couldn’t get the car out.” () Someone complained about really bad menstrual cramping. Unfortunately, it was the 11-yr-old brother who was just copying his older sister. () “I can’t go to the concert because I’ll be sick.” The concert was in two weeks. () “I got lost.” () One kid rubbed a bunch of dirt in his eye and told his dad he had pinkeye. Unfortunately, he actually gave himself an eye infection! () And my personal favorite—”I have an appointment with the doctor.” Her dad had a PhD, and they went out and watched a movie.
[40% of workers took a fake sick day in 2017.] Excuses to miss work. () “I’m having a personal emergency.” It was actually a fashion emergency. () “There’s been a death in the family.” … on your favorite tv show. () “The pressure cooker exploded and scared my roommate.” () “The ozone changes have deflated my car tires.” () “I ate cat food instead of tuna and got very sick.” () “I’m bowling the game of my life and can’t get to work right now.” () “I was bitten by a duck.” () “My 12-yr-old stole the car and I can’t leave the house right now.” () “My car’s sobriety test won’t let me start the car.” () “I forgot you hired me.” () My favorite—“I have better things to do.”
[They don’t keep statistics on the number of people who try to get out of jury duty.] Excuses not to serve on a jury. () “I have no one to walk my dog.” () “The defendant just looks guilty.” () Someone not-so-discretely brought a copy of the prosecutor’s book on legal practice. () “I don’t believe in the causation of emotional damages.” () “I don’t believe in law.” () “I have a very weak bladder.” () “I have a non-refundable vacation.” () And my favorite—in response to the question if the potential juror had any experience with lawyers, “You picked me up at a bar five years ago.” She was excused.
Excuses to get out of helping a friend or accepting an invitation. () “I have a washing machine that’s going to be delivered on that day.” () “My boyfriend won the lottery so we went out to celebrate.” () “I forgot today was daylight savings.” [As an aside, I wonder how many of your class members will use that as an excuse for being late Sunday?] () “I was stuck in the elevator.” () “My psychic said I might die on Tuesday, so I was saying goodbye to my family.” () “My horoscope says I can’t do heavy lifting this week.” () “I have a high maintenance bird.” () And my favorite—“I have to find out the truth about Benghazi.” People are full of excuses. But Paul makes it clear that we don’t have any excuses for the most important things.
This Week's Big Idea: Do People Believe in God?
I’ve done versions of this topic before. Paul essentially tells us in our passage this week that deep down inside, every human knows that there is a god of some kind. And if they’re honest with themselves, they know that there is God. They willfully push that knowledge down because (a) they are scared of Him, (b) they don’t want to acknowledge that someone else has authority over them, or (c) they are putting off belief so they can indulge in sin. Is that true?
Well, yes. Even in the “enlightened” United States, 90% of Americans admit to believing is some kind of higher power (this poll is from 2017). In a global Reuters poll I found from 2011, 80% of all people worldwide acknowledged a higher power; more than 50% believed in an afterlife. The most “godless” country (France) still had a belief rate of more than 60%.
A number of news outlets have been running articles with titles like “Fewer Americans believe in God”; that’s a very concerning title, and it might seem to contradict what Paul is saying. What they actually mean by that is “Fewer Americans adhere to conservative Christianity”; if you think about it, that actually reinforces what Paul is saying. Remember, Paul’s argument is that people know better, but they reject what they know because they want to indulge in their own sin. That’s exactly what people do when they reject conservative religion. They want to create a religion and a god that affirms their beliefs and behaviors. [Of course, let’s be honest—sometimes, what young people are rejecting is our misplaced zeal for legalism; that’s equally problematic for Paul.]
Here’s the twist on these numbers for this week’s lesson. Paul indicates that a primary reason people reject belief in the One True God is sexual misconduct. People are obsessed with sex, and God says sex only with your spouse. I’d say the numbers bear that out. A 2018 poll by a major beauty retailer said that the average American and Brit have had 7 sexual partners. (People from Louisiana averaged more than 15.) Just as telling, 40% of men and 30% of women acknowledged lying about that number to other people. So I would say that Paul is again correct—many people want to have sex outside of marriage, and they are willing to lie about it. You can find many different polls to corroborate that idea. The long and short is this: Paul is right, people do believe in God/god. And people do want to have sex on their terms. And that doesn’t mix.
You don’t have time to pursue this topic, and I don’t have time to develop it, but as a Bible teacher, I can’t help but notice the direct correlation between the so-called sexual revolution and the decline of Christianity in America. Think about it—Christianity teaches sex between one man and one woman in marriage for life. Starting in the 60s, we began proclaiming “free sex”, finally coming to fruition in the modern tinder culture. And the promotion of homosexuality really took off about 15 years ago. Christianity has stood against those developments (and for good reason), which has led to a smear campaign by the people who Paul is basically describing in our passage this week. The theory I would like to research is the idea that “sex” more than any other subject—more than the exclusivity of Christ, than the reality of hell—has been the cause of the attack of Christianity in America. That would certainly line up with Paul’s words.
Our Context in Romans
Paul continues building his masterful case for Christianity. He has just explained that his mission is to share the gospel with Jews and non-Jews, and now he explains why. To make a long story short, everybody (Jew and Greek) has broken God’s law, and as a result are bound to suffer the wrath of God in hell. The only solution is for them to hear and respond to the good news about Jesus.
By explaining how the problem is universal, Paul opens the door for a gospel conversation with any person, regardless of their background. Considering he had not met anyone he was writing to, this was a great way to start (even though it is extremely uncomfortable).
The Big Theme. This is a legal image. Paul is writing to the city with the most powerful courts in human history. Concepts of righteousness (being right with the court), wrath (being wrong with the court), justification (being declared right with the court), and propitiation (receiving mercy from the court), while they had a much more robust meaning for Paul as a Christian, would have made sense to Romans within their view of law. Here’s the way you can explain this to your class: to Paul, the only thing that matters is whether you hear “guilty” or “not guilty” from the judge. It makes no difference what the offense is. It could be a minor shoplifting charge or double homicide. It doesn’t matter. If you’re guilty, you suffer the wrath of God. And his point here is that all people will hear a guilty verdict on something in their life. Even if they don’t have access to the law, they know by their conscience of something they have done wrong. And one thing is all it takes.
Part 1: Revealed in Nature (Romans 1:18-20)
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.
These verses are filled with “fors” and “therefore” because all of it develops one simple, devastating argument. All people need the gospel, and we need to share it with them. Why? Because hell is a real place, and hell waits for everyone who does not believe the gospel.
If I didn’t think that your class would get sidetracked talking about homosexuality, I would have put more focus on “wrath of God”. One reason why Americans don’t believe in the God of the Bible is this strange notion that they don’t believe God has wrath. Because they expect God to be like them, they don’t believe that wrath and love can coexist. But wrath is the purest consequence of true love. Ask your class, When someone has harmed someone you love, what is your reaction? Then ask your class, What is sin? People say that sin primarily affects God. That’s true in the sense that sin is ultimately against God. But why is that? Because all sin harms a person—someone God created and loves dearly. Thank about it. Every sin causes damage to a person (even if indirect). Sure, sometimes that damage seems minor, but that’s beside the point to a holy God (remember the courtroom image). Godlessness and unrighteousness eventually results in actions that harm people. Sometimes, that damage takes the form of suppressing truth. Ask your class why that’s a big deal. Because the greatest harm we can cause a person is to get them by their own will to commit sin (including the ultimate sin of rejecting God’s offer of salvation). And when we suppress truth, we prevent people from being equipped to make the right decision (Paul comes back to this later). And worse, this suppression runs counter to what people intuit. We all know that God created the world. No one innately believes that blind chemical processes produced life. People have to be taught that. And they have to want to believe it.
[Note—if you don’t think your class wants to focus on all of the sin talk because everyone is really stressed with the weather and the politics and the coronavirus and whatnot and they need a lighter lesson than usual, that’s fine. I would suggest focusing on God’s amazing creation for a while. Bring in some pictures of amazing natural wonders, or pictures of the universe, and ask your class what they learn of God by looking at them. Or even show a nature video—don’t be afraid of one that credits evolution; instead, comment on how depressing it is that people are so determined not to believe in God that they accept the absurdities proposed by atheist scientists.]
Paul specifically mentions God’s power evident in creation. Yep. Also, “divine nature”. This would refer to His transcendence, wisdom, creativity, timelessness, and purity. Yep, yep, and yep. The universe is incomprehensibly amazing. Would it not make sense that God is protective of His creation? Even wrathful against those who wish to harm it?
Aside: Romans Emperors and Debauchery
You already know that the Roman world had a big problem with sexual immorality, which is one of the reasons why Paul made such a fuss about it. Well, it’s an even more interesting topic when we look specifically at the emperors who ruled during Paul’s ministry. This information comes from the famed Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius. These were not secrets.
Tiberius (14-37). He was known for having children perform orgies at his parties, and often he would sexually abuse those children as a part of the event.
Gaius/Caligula (37-41). He would practice deviant sexual acts on hostages and slaves, both male and female. He had sex with his sisters and was known for having sex with the wives of his dinner guests.
Claudius (41-54). The most “normal” of the bunch. He had four wives; his fifth wife was his niece who killed him so her son Nero would become emperor.
Nero (54-68). He married a boy, Sporus, who played the part of the wife. He later married a man, Doryphorus, who played the part of the husband. He also had sex with his mother and later killed her. (Even other Romans frowned on Nero’s behavior.) There is no evidence that Nero executed Paul because of Paul’s writings (like Herod executed John the Baptist), but it’s possible that Nero knew of Paul and took delight in his death.
The point is that Rome was known for sexual immorality, and Paul attacked it head-on. Not only would this make him unpopular with the average debaucherous Roman but could have been a death sentence if the emperors had picked up on it.
Aside: Roman Sexual Immorality
This is difficult for modern Americans to understand. Romans didn’t have a word for “homosexual”. Male-on-male sex was extremely common, especially in the upper class. Why? Because men in that culture believed that men were better than woman at everything. That would include sex. Women were necessary for having babies. But if you wanted a great sexual experience, you had sex with another man. Instead, Romans had words to describe whether the man was playing the masculine or the feminine role in the sexual act. In was generally looked down upon to play the feminine role, and so most men would engage in such acts with men of a lower social class so that they could play the masculine role. This was also common for the patron to get to have sex with the men he was sponsoring. (Augustus had enacted laws against adultery, mostly to protect women, but they found ways around it quickly. Basically, their attitude was if you had sex with someone of a lower class, men or women, it didn’t really “count”.)
Yes, this is all quite disturbing. And it also helps explain why and how Paul wrote about the subject. Homosexual acts were extremely common among Roman men, but they were encouraged and considered normal. Same-sex marriage was illegal, however. Those sexual acts were for enjoyment; marriage was for raising a family. There were very few records about female-on-female sex, though that is probably because they didn’t consider such acts to be true sex.
People today argue that Paul was not condemning homosexuality but men being effeminate. That misunderstands that Paul was using common terms of the day to describe homosexual acts. God would judge Roman society for their sexual errors, including homosexual acts.
Part 2: Replaced by Nonsense (Romans 1:21-23)
For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.
No matter what tone you want to set in this lesson, don’t skimp on these verses. They are necessary both to explain the world we live in and also to give us the pity and compassion we need to share the gospel with people we may not really like. If you haven’t already, ask your class what it is about God that people don’t like and want to reject. I would say for the most part it goes back to the Garden: people want to determine good and evil for themselves and be like God. [But let’s not forget that people around us also don’t like God because we have misrepresented Him in the world. In the next chapter, Paul goes off on the Jews for blaspheming God in the way they lived.] As we’ve said, people know that there’s a God/god, but they willfully choose to repress that belief. (We use the phrase “head knowledge vs. heart knowledge” to distinguish “know” from “know”.) What follows is a depressing look into human nature. When we decide that we don’t like something, we will refuse to acknowledge the good they have done or be grateful for it. We see that with kids and teachers. We see that people and law enforcement. We see that with politicians and other politicians. It’s scary how stubbornly close-minded people can become. Ask your class if they’ve ever been there. After you’ve done it for a while, isn’t it easier and easier to keep doing it? We have phrases like “sticking your head in the sand” and “covering your ears to the truth” to explain what happens. (Send your class to Acts 7:55-8:1, particularly 7:57, to demonstrate the terrifying consequences of when people have determined to close their mind to the truth.)
And then Paul really gets after them. Where did the phrase “enlightened” come from? It has biblical roots—we only truly know God when the Spirit enlightens our spirits; we can’t “learn” Him on our own. But today, we use it in its historic sense—”The Enlightenment” occurred when Europeans threw off the oppressive darkness of the Roman Catholic Church and began to think for themselves. People consider themselves “enlightened” when they “no longer believe that silly Bible stuff; I’m a smart, scientific, reasonable person”. They are so desperate to sound advanced, put-together, and intelligent. And yet they are just fools, and everything they say simply reinforces that fact. In Paul’s day, people worshipped literal idols of various things. Today’s “enlightened” people may not think they do that, but they certainly worship at the altar of Darwinism, atheism, socialism, or whatever –ism they’ve become obsessed with. What Paul is getting at is the rejection of God for something lesser. What a shame, and what a depressing reality. And how difficult! How much work it is to convince themselves that their –ism is better than God!
[Aside on the Attributes of God. I think it’s been a while since I reviewed this. God’s attributes are either incommunicable (i.e. we don’t have a personal reference point to try to understand them): independence, unchangeableness, eternity, omnipresence, invisibility, and unity; or they are communicable (i.e. He shared a bit of these with people): spirituality, omniscience, wisdom, truthfulness, faithfulness, goodness, love, mercy, grace, patience, holiness, peace, order, righteousness, justice, jealousy, wrath. God possesses those attributes to a perfect degree.]
Part 3: Delivered Over (Romans 1:24-28)
Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen. For this reason God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a corrupt mind so that they do what is not right.
I think I’ve addressed this as well as I can in the various Focuses. The surest proof of rebellion against God is sexual behavior. Make it clear that Paul equally targets all forms of sexual immorality. Elsewhere, Paul says that sexual sin is unique in that it is sin against your own body. While STDs are certainly in view, he’s mostly talking about shame, the feeling of being used, and disrespect. If your group is tight, you can ask about the personal cost of sexual immorality. Paul likens it to idol worship (have you picked up on the cultural cues that indicate sex being treated like a god?). But note that he specifically singles out homosexual activity. This verse is clear condemnation of homosexual activity. There is no way around it. It is “unnatural” and “shameless” and “not right”. People have tried to define away those words, but every attempt is hollow.
I do have one request for you: continue reading 1:29-31. Outsiders have accused us of demonizing homosexual behavior and ignoring other sins. At the very least, make sure your class knows that all of those behaviors are equal evidence of a corrupt and depraved mind (and we find them in ourselves, don’t we?).
Deserving Death (1:32). I’m running out of space. The real key to this verse is the declaration that people who do those things (any of them, not just the sexual sin) deserve to die (“are worthy of death”). All sin carries with it the death sentence. People around us really want to believe that their sin “isn’t that bad” or that big of a deal. If you believe that, then you’re one step closer to approving of others in their sin. [Save time to ask this question: why do people applaud others for committing the same sins that they do? Not only is that common, but I think it’s in our nature. So, what’s the solution? How do we fix it?]
Aside: Homosexuality in the World Today
One of the “problems” today is that homosexuality has become more acceptable in parts of the world, including the US. Truth is not up for vote, but being on the short end of public opinion does tend to make one unpopular. The further the pendulum swings away from biblical attitudes toward sex, the more vehement opposition will be to proclaiming biblical truth. Again, that doesn’t change biblical truth.
This chart from Pew Research will help identify those places in the world where Christian missionaries face the most uphill battle with respect to this topic. As we have learned in America, the gay agenda can use their views on sex to hijack a missionary's entire message, taking the focus off of Jesus and turning Christianity into a hate-group. This is yet another area we need to pray for our missionaries about!