“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (Romans 1:18 NIV)
“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen” (Romans 1:24,25 NIV)
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts” (Romans 1:26 NIV).
“Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Romans 1:28,29a NIV).
“They invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30b NIV)
“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32 NIV).
Evil is it’s Own Punishment
You might have noticed that I omitted the list of sins in the verses above, especially the talk about homosexuality as a depravity in the eyes of God. That was on purpose. Not that I don’t believe it to be true. I most certainly do. But, rather, because people nowadays are distracted from the main message by the discussion about homosexuality. We will address that wickedness later on, but for now, we want to focus on the main teaching that Paul is giving here without going into specifics.
(I may have already lost some of you with the comment that homosexuality is wickedness, but the truth is that the list of evil Paul gives is very long and it covers all of us. So don’t fret. Whether you are homosexual or straight, Paul considers us all to be “wicked” and deserving of the wrath of God. That is the lesson that must be learnt. We are all without excuse.)
Most people who try to explain what Paul is saying in this first chapter of Romans usually connect vs. 18 with this whole section.
It starts with the word “therefore” which connects it to the previous section on godlessness. That is why we say that godlessness results in wickedness. Hold on a minute, you say. It sounds here like God is responsible for this wickedness. People are godless. I accept that. It is pretty obvious but here it is saying that God’s punishment is that he makes people wicked.
Well, no. That’s not what it says. It says that God “gave them over” to their wickedness. In fact, Paul repeats that phrase three times in vs. 24,26 and 28 so it is a key idea. What in the world does that mean? Something like “God let them be wicked because they wanted to be wicked.” Remember that this is from the point of view of God, or at least from the point of view of someone who believes that God exists. That is true of everything that Paul is saying here about humanity.
Earlier, Paul said that people who were not religious at all were “stupid” (my word) because they wanted to be a god (or an authority or a law) unto themselves. If God exists, they are competing with God. A fundamental reality of life, like the immutable law of gravity, is that if God exists, then he is in charge and we are accountable to Him. Humans are not a law unto themselves whether they like it or not (if God exists).
Earlier, Paul said that religious people who worshiped idols were “fools” (Paul’s word) because although they acknowledged the divine, they wanted to control the curses and blessings of life through religious or moral activities in order to get the benefits that they wanted (a good harvest, health, money and resources etc). We do the same thing today. We are all “fools” because we do not let God be God. We may acknowledge that he is there, but we want to control Him rather than let Him control us. We still want to be in charge. We still want to be gods unto ourselves. If God exists, then this isn’t going to work either.
Now, Paul says that in both cases, for the religious and the non-religious alike, God gives people what they want. Wow. That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Can you imagine? Because a thief is wicked, God’s answer is let the thief be a thief. Give him what he wants. Let the murderer continue to murder. Let the child molester continue to molest children. What of the innocent victims in all of this? Well, apparently, there are no innocent victims (which we still have a hard time accepting). But still, what is God up to?
When we talk about the secular problem of evil, we acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with humans and we try to manage it as best we can. But it is our problem. As soon as we talk about the relgious problem of evil and bring God into the picture, everything changes. Now there is someone who has the power and authority to do something about this general wickedness that we all experience every day. Therefore, we cry out to God to DO SOMETHING about evil. We might even want to blame him for being so passive about our hurt and pain and circumstances. But we would be missing the bigger picture.
We need to remember another truth from scripture which theolgians call the providence of God (and common grace).
The idea is that God keeps the world going even though we have rebelled against Him. After all, God promised Adam and Eve that they would die if they cut themselves off from their creator by disobeying Him by eating of the forbidden fruit. They did it anyway. And they did die but not right away. We talked about God’s dilemma of love. How does he save his children while still maintaining his justice. He put a plan in motion which required that the world would continue (even in their wickedness) until the Saviour could come and solve the problem once and for all.
I call it an “uneasy truce” between God and man. That truce of love gave the devil power to accuse us in the court of justice of God (see Job) and it wasn’t until Jesus completed his mission that the devil was thrown out of heaven once and for all. It was an uneasy truce of love which cost God a lot since he has to put up with sin and evil and rebellion and general wickedness each and every day. But his wrath and his justice, both rooted in love, were fulfilled in anticipation (in the OT) and in completion (in the NT) of the work of Christ on the cross.
The thing that we all forget is that the nature of evil is progressive. There is no easy way to control it. It gets worse every day until it self-destructs in death and eternal damnation.
We think we are controlling it with police and laws and the justice system and prisons and punishments. Maybe. A little bit. But we all know that it can get out of hand pretty quick. The truth is, says the Bible, is that God has to put some controls in place. Yes, he uses human means to get the job done. He did it in Israel and he does it in the rest of the world as well. But it goes far beyond that.
The providence of God (and common grace) have to do with the fact that God has to control evil and modify it and even stop it at times. He has to keep it in check. Not only does God give us all good things but he also keeps evil in check. That is what the providence of God is all about. We think we are the ones who love our families, our children, our friends, our neighbors. But the truth is that whatever love we have comes from God. A little stress, a little trouble and we all become quite selfish quite quickly. That’s the truth. How many times has God saved you from yourself? How many times has God kept you from harm? How many times have you almost gotten killed, almost gotten hurt, almost committed a major mistake, almost got into a bad relationship? We probably don’t even know how many times we have been saved from our own folly.
On the other hand, we remember the times when God didn’t save us and we got hurt, we hurt ourselves, we got into trouble, we ended up in a mess. Why didn’t God save us from that? The short answer is because He loves you. That is always the answer to the problem of evil. It seems counter-intuitive but it is true. If you want to know the truth, the reason that God does not always interfere, does not always protect you from your own folly, or from the folly of others, is because he loves you (and the other person).
God has to use evil in order to bring about good. You and I cannot do that. By no means. But we cannot judge God by human standards. Let God be God. He has the knowledge, the power and the goodness to handle being the judge of all mankind.
And one thing we know, since the world continues on with its evil, is that He has a plan. And we know that plan includes all of us (not just me) and that none of us are innocent (including me) and that God’s plan is to save as many as possible through the work of Christ on the cross. All evil, all wickedness, all problems and hurt and suffering is subject to that great design of God. And if we truly understood the eternal life and death nature of the battle we face, we would agree with God that it is worth it.
I, for one, pray all the time that God would use my life, the good and the bad and the ugly, to show my children and my family that He is real and that He transforms lives. I am willing to let God use evil to bring good into the lives of the people I love. The thing is that God is willing to use hurt and pain and suffering in my life also for the lives of people I don’t love. You get the point. From His perspective, it is worth it because God is love and His love is much more powerful than mine. That is why He has the power to save and I don’t.
So evil has a purpose. It isn’t always clear in the details but we are dealing with the idea in general. Why does God not just get rid of evil? Because if he does, it is called the Final Judgment and we will all be found guilty and we will all be lost. There is a reason why God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish but all come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:9). So the short answer to the religious problem of evil is still the best. Why doesn’t God do something about evil? Because he loves you. He is willing to put up with sin and evil in his efforts to save as many as possible because the alternative is final judgment (and nobody wants to go there without the protection of the blood of Jesus).
Now, here is the point. If that is the normal way that God deals with the world, with the evil and wickedness of men, by limiting it, by using it to get people’s attention, by changing it into good, by allowing some love, some goodness, some hope to continue on so that people will have a chance to be saved, then what is Paul saying here in this passage. It doesn’t sound the same at all. God is “giving them over” to their wickedness. Do you see how horrible that is?
When God gives up on you, you need to start worrying? We talked about Pharoah during the ten plagues in the OT a couple of days ago. He hardened his own heart the first couple of times and then God hardened his heart towards the end. If God exists, if He is trying to save this world from the consequences of their rebellion, then it is significant to hear that God has decided to harden your heart, to give you over to your wickedness, to the consequences of your sin, both in this life and in the next. That is the saddest thing that I could imagine and should bring us all to tears. Love may be it’s own reward but sin is also it’s own punishment.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, do not give me over to my own sins. Do not let me harden my heart. I need your mercy every day to stay in the right way. I need your help to love my neighbor as myself. I belong to you. But I see now why this is such a terrible punishment to just allow people to go to hell in their own way, to destroy themselves in their folly, to let people rebel and die and face eternal punishment. May it not be so for me and my loved ones, Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.