Sermon preached on Romans 1:26-32 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/29/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Vile Passions and a Debased Mind
We continue today this passage that showcases the depravity of man. Remember where we are at in Romans. Paul is going to be getting into the good news of how man can be justified by faith in Christ as offered in gospel. He already introduced that notion in verses 16 and 17. He will be explaining that in great detail in the chapters to come. But in order for us to appreciate this justification, we have to appreciate first man’s state without it. Justification is being declared righteous. But Paul’s first point here is that the natural man cannot be declared righteous. Rather, God’s wrath stands against them, because they have violated God’s righteous decrees. And so that’s the context of where we are at so far in this letter. Paul’s continuing to setup the bad news of man’s depravity, so he can then talk of the solution offered in the good news of the gospel.
Well in today’s passage, the discussion of man’s depravity focuses on how God hands people over to their sins. Last week we saw how all men know there is a God and that he ought to be worshipped. Last week we saw how natural man rejects that knowledge and instead worships idols. That results in God’s wrath against them. And one expression of that wrath is God’s giving up such people to their sin. In other words, part of God’s punishment against man is God abandoning the wicked to their sin; so that they fall even further in their depravity. That’s what this passage particularly gets into today. We’ll look at this idea of God giving people up to their sin in three points. We’ll think first of what this concept entails in general. Then, second, we’ll consider how this concept finds its expression in the example of homosexuality and then the longer list of sins given here. Third, we’ll think about how to go about doing ministry to depraved humans, largely using homosexuality as the example, given that it’s so highlighted here.
Let’s begin then by considering the concept of God’s handing people over. The concept is found explicitly stated in verses 24, 26, and 28. Each of these verses uses the same Greek word to describe what God is doing. The word is about God abandoning the people, giving them over to something. As you look at what God’s abandoning the people to, you see that it’s to their depravity. Verse 24, God gives them up to uncleanness, which as the verse goes on to further describe, gets at the state of their heart – a heart full of evil lusts. Verse 26 basically says the same thing with different words. God gives them up to vile passions. Passions that seek satisfaction in the wrong places. Verse 28 is slightly different. There it says God gives them up to a debased mind. A mind that is affected in such a way as to love ungodliness and unrighteousness. And so all three of these things are all of the same kind of thing. They are getting at the state of our inner self. God hands our desires and our minds over to depravity. Our inner selves desire and think wickedly. What we want is wicked. What we think is wicked. Humans should desire the things of God. We should desire godliness. We should think God’s thoughts after him. We should have minds that see clearly the truth of God. But for the natural man, that becomes not the case. Humans since Adam all are born into a state of depravity, but in their sin fall into it even more.
Why is this? Well, it’s very clear in each of these verses. There’s a reason attached to it. It’s the consequence of what we discussed last week. Because all people truly know God, but reject that God, then God hands them over. This is stated in each of these verses. Verse 24 starts out with the word “therefore.” The reason goes back to the previous verse. God gives them up to uncleanness because of their idolatry. They know God and should worship him, but they instead worship idols, so God gives them up. Same reason is used in verse 26, appealing back to verse 25. In both cases, their lack of wanting to worship God, means God allows their desires to become corrupted. And then again in the final reference in verse 28, it’s something similar. There, the reason given is that they didn’t want to retain the knowledge of God, so that’s why God hands over their minds to become corrupted. And so rejecting the knowledge of God means God lets their knowledge become corrupted too. See the connections here? You see, God’s punishment to them really fits the crime. They didn’t desire God, so God hands over their desires. They didn’t want to know God, so God hands over their knowledge. He lets them have what they want, essentially. You get this same sense in of this justice in verse 26 when it says that women exchanged the natural relations for unnatural ones. That word of exchange is the same one used in the previous verse. Verse 25 talked about how man exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and so then God’s handing them over to depravity results in them now exchanging natural actions for unnatural ones. God’s punishment on them fits the crime. This is similar in verse 27 when it talks about the penalty of their error; that likely is referring not to a punishment for the homosexual actions, rather their propensity for homosexuality is the punishment. Their penalty for rejecting God is that God allows them to abuse and defile their bodies in sin. The word for penalty there is that you got what you deserved, so it’s all the same idea.
Let’s make sure we understand this. Basically this is God responding to people’s rejection of him by allowing them to more fully live out that rejection. You see, we know elsewhere in Scripture, that God in his common grace restrains evil in people. People are not as bad as they could be. And yet, this passage teaches us that there is also a way in which God does not restrain evil. That natural man in their rejection of God has been given over to depravity. At any point of someone’s rejection of God, he could intervene. He could restrain their hearts from falling further into this depravity. But God thought that not right. He sees the wickedness of their refusal of him, and lets them experience where that direction takes them. He begins to show them what life without him looks like. It’s one that results in disgusting desires and foolish thinking. In other words, depravity, per God’s definition. And so man hardens his heart against God, and so God in turns hardens it more. He hardens it more in that he gives them over more and more to depraved desires and thinking. Their sinful reject of God is punished
by handing them over to a state where they are all the more inclined to go after more sin. This is the state of all men who are without Christ, and the state of all men whom have not been born again by the Holy Spirit. And there is a sense of this corruption that still remains even for the Christian, until we get heaven. That’s a source of struggle for Christian — we’ll talk more about that later.
Let’s turn now to our second point. So far we’ve talked about how man’s rejection of God affects their desires and thinking. In other words, we’re talking about man’s sinful nature. However, we find that nature is then expressed in sin. A sinful nature lives sinfully. Man’s condition of depravity is expressed in various sins. That’s what we have in this passage. The sin of homosexuality is highlighted in detail. Then a long list of sins is given after that. I think the point is that not every person lives out each of these sins. But a depraved soul will express itself in sins such as these. These are illustrations. They are not exhaustive of every sin a depraved person. Yet, interestingly Paul chooses to hone in on homosexuality. Maybe he did that because in the Greco-Roman society this was such a prevalent and socially acceptable sin compared to say among the Jews. If that was his reason, then this is very fitting for us to hone in on today as well, because it’s a key culture war in America. Homosexuals are making concerted efforts to not only seek toleration of this sin in our society, but even more: broad acceptance and even celebration of the lifestyle. Movies, TV shows, and books try to celebrate it as normal. Laws are pushed to advocate its equal protection. Even the President has wickedly declared June the last three years as a month to take pride in homosexuality. Popular opinion has seemed to be influenced by all these efforts. We are becoming more like the Greco-Roman world again in this area. How fitting then for us to focus in on this issue then too.
So, notice then Paul’s description of homosexuality here. By the way, we note that he talks about this for both men and women. It’s a problem for both genders. Let’s note three labels that are given here to describe this homosexuality. First, label in verse 26 – it’s called a vile passion. The idea in the Greek is that this passion or lust is dishonorable and shameful. Not all desires are bad. But sinful man has had his desires become depraved, these dishonorable lusts surface. So in this case, we can understand why homosexuals might say that their sexual desires are just who they are. Biblically, that’s true. Biblically, all men are born into a state of total depravity. And Biblically, people find themselves handed over further into depravity as they reject God, so they find sin to be more and more natural. Homosexual desires may very well seem quite natural to someone. Biblically, this is a true reality for them. But Biblically, these are still not good desires. And so there’s the lie the culture pushes. The culture wants you to think that just because someone has a genuine loving desire for someone of the same sex, then this has to be an innocent and good desire. It comes out of love, they would say. What’s wrong with that? Well, the Bible disagrees. The very desire is a bad desire. It comes from the depravity of man. Not every desire we have is right.
Next in verses 26 and 27 Paul says that homosexuality is not natural. Again, the homosexual community will want to tell you differently. But the Bible says otherwise. This is unnatural. The natural use, Paul says here, is that a woman is with a man, not with another woman. The same is true for a man. A man is to be with a woman, not another man. The words Paul uses sound a bit scientific or biological here. He doesn’t use the normal word for man and woman. It’s more like the word for male and female. Homosexuality is not natural, even if it seems natural and right to someone. But again, that’s the point here. Paul’s saying that humans are depraved now, so that is why what is not natural will seem natural. This explains the frustrations homosexuals have when they try to defend themselves. It surely does seem natural to them. But that’s depraved thinking at work.
The third label Paul uses is in verse 27. He says these are shameful acts. This makes sense. If the desires are dishonorable and shameful, then acting on those actions will be shameful too. And so, this is Paul’s basic summary here. Homosexuality is wrong both in desire and action. It is shameful and unnatural. It’s the result in part of God handing over people to depravity because they rejected God.
And yet as we already mentioned, the sin of homosexuality is just one example that he highlights. If you are sitting here today as someone who struggles with homosexuality I don’t want you to get the false impression that this is saying that only homosexuals are in a state of depravity. I’ve already said, but let me say it again. All humans apart from a work of the Holy Spirit to bring them to Christ, are in this state of depravity. And even Christians who have become saved, do not have their sinful natures so totally removed so as to never struggle with these things again. We’ll talk more about that yet today. But for now, I want to point to us all, that the core problem of the homosexual is something at the core problem of all mankind. The core problem is man’s depraved souls. That’s what verses 28-32 drive home. This depravity results for some in homosexuality. But it can also result in countless other sins. This lists start out in verse 29 with some general things. Broad categories of sin: unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness. Notice even the word “all” in there. All unrighteousness. This is a broad description.
Then in verse 29 the list continues with several sinful things that mankind fills himself with. These are getting more specific. Things like envy and murder. The last group of sins begins at the end of verse 29 with the whisperers. Whispering there is referring to gossip; those slanderous things you say in private, behind someone’s back. Especially telling there is in verse 30 when it says that men are inventors of evil things. Man keeps finding new ways to do evil. Just think of some of the laws we have. As soon as they are passed, people start thinking about how they can get away with breaking them while not being caught. People do that in general with God’s laws.
And so you have this long list of sins. Again, homosexuality is just one expression of this depravity. This long list of sins is not even exhaustive, since people are constantly inventing even new kinds of evil. What this should make us all realize, is that all of us should find this passage a searing critique. Just because you don’t commit homosexuality, do you envy? Have you have had guile, like when you told a lie? Have you ever gossiped or slandered someone? Have you been prideful? Any and all of these sins all come back to the same fundamental problem. We have sinful natures; natures that can become all the more are hardened toward sin when we sin.
And the final trajectory of this depravity is not good, and we all know that too. The final verse here, verse 32, says it so clearly. Man knows that the righteous judgment of God leaves us damned. It says that we know that these practices are deserving of death! Deserving of death! Paul says we all know it! And yet we do them anyways. And not only that, we applaud others who do them too. You see, this is how bad our depravity is. If someone knows something is destructive to themselves, and they do it anyways, we tend to call that insanity. And yet that’s the issue for us. Our minds and hearts don’t work right anymore, apart from God. And so we live self-destructive, self-condemning, lives. We are damned, on our own.
This then is our depraved sinful nature. How should we approach this? What’s the solution? Is there is a solution? How does the church minister to depraved people? Well, the good news is that there is a solution. The short answer is that people need Christ in their lives. Christ’s Spirit can turn back the depraved heart. God who hardens hearts can also soften them. It’s the reality of Romans 1 why Jesus told Nicodemus that a man must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. Jesus’ point there was that there must be a work of the Spirit in someone’s life for this new birth to happen. And so that means that the Spirit is out there doing this work. And yet, Jesus also said the Spirit works like the wind – it blows as it desires. It’s not something under our control.
And so then the good news is that God can change people’s hearts. He does that by his Spirit. But if he does that according to his own timing and plan, do we just sit back and do nothing? Just wait and hope that he’ll change our lives and the lives of our loved ones? Well, no that wouldn’t be Biblical. You see, even though God sovereignly saves people by his Spirit, he does use his church in the process. Christians lead people to faith in Christ, even while the Spirit works as the Spirit works. How then should the church and its ministry facilitate this? Well, for the sake of the more controversial topic, let’s talk about this with the example of homosexuality.
For those who come in to our midst and their specific expression of their depravity is homosexuality, how do we handle it? Well, homophobia doesn’t seem the solution. Neither would it be right to be accepting of homosexual behavior or any way treating it like its normal and not shameful. To think otherwise, would be to be misled and deceived. Well, how we should think about this person, is that they too are totally depraved, just like all humans. They’ve been born into a sinful nature, and their own actions apart from God have continued in that direction. Given that, then we know they ultimately need to find salvation in Christ. So then, what can we do? It’s actually fairly simple. We can use the means of grace to seek to help them.
You see, we can’t control the Spirit and force the Spirit to regenerate anyone. And yet we know that the Spirit ordinarily works through ordinary means of grace. So take the Word of God and Prayer. Use the Word, both the law and the gospel. And be praying for them.
Some people might cringe when I say we should use the law with say homosexuals, or any people who don’t know the Lord. And yet what does Paul tell us in Galatians 3:24? That the law serves as a tutor to bring us to Christ. That is essentially what he’s doing here too in Romans 1. The law exposes our sin. It shows us that God’s righteous judgment says that we are guilty and deserving of death. The Spirit works through the declaring of the Law of God to awaken us to our sin. To show that we can’t keep the law perfectly. That we need a Savior. That we need what Christ does for us. This is why I would even suggest that laws in the civil government can even be used in some way to this end. The people who struggle with homosexuality or any of the sins we mentioned should be confronted with the moral law of God from every angle. That they realize they are without hope if they try to measure up their life against God’s law by their own works.
But I wouldn’t want to leave people with just law. That would lead to despair and misery. Then you need to bring them to the gospel. Remember what Paul said in verses 16 and 17. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation! The law confronts people with their sin and their depraved state. That their minds and hearts have even been handed over to further depravity. But the Spirit can use the law and then the preaching of the gospel to bring people to salvation. That with the law they see the need for salvation, and with the gospel they find that salvation in Christ. They realize that they can be made right before God, not by works of the law, but by faith in Christ who kept the law for them! And so we use the Word with people who come here; law and gospel. And then we pray for them. Pray that the Spirit would so use the Word to awaken them.
The point is that we don’t control the Spirit and how he brings people from this state of spiritual death and depravity into newness of heart and life. But God has told us what to do be doing that he might use us to bring people from this state. Now, lest we send a confusing message, I want to make something clear here now. As Christians, we’ve received a real victory over our depraved sinful nature. We have been set free, no longer under bondage as we were before. However, we have not been so brought out that we never have any of these struggles with sin still. Before we get to heaven, there is some remaining corruption of sin in our hearts. This is so very important to note. Our victory over our sinful nature is an already, but not yet, sort of victory. Paul will get into this in chapter 7 of this letter. To talk about the inner struggle we still have. My point then, is I wouldn’t want someone to walk away today and think that non-Christians are the ones who have depraved sinful natures like this, and the Christians are perfect saints who never struggle with sins at all anymore. That’s not true to reality, and it’s not what the Bible teaches.
Rather, the thing to realize is that when we become a Christian, there is a real change that takes place. Ephesians 2 talks about us passing from being spiritual dead to be spiritually alive. We are born again in a momentary work of the Spirit. And yet we still struggle with our sinful nature. There’s still a battle. When we go to glory with Christ, he will perfect us fully then. Then we will not have that inner battle any more. Then we will be the perfect saints who never struggle with sin anymore. But until that day of glory, that’s not our reality. Rather, what’s going on is what Christians call sanctification. We are growing in righteousness and godliness. We are starting to live moral lives more and worship God more faithfully. But the reason why is because God is working on our insides. It’s the opposite of this handing over principle here. The same God who can harden hearts, can also soften them. That’s why Romans 12:1 says that now our minds are being renewed. Again, note that’s the opposite of what’s talked about in this passage. God is renewing the minds and reshaping the desires of his people. That we would be craving honorable things, especially the worship of God. And that we would think rightly about things. That we’d affirm God’s truth and commend righteousness. It’s this inward change that God’s working inside us, that is going to result in new acts of godliness and righteousness. Not perfect this side of heaven, but we are under divine construction. And again, this is something that God uses the ministry of the Word and prayer to bring about by his Spirit. And so as a church, we are to be busy about the Word and prayer, for both converts and ongoing discipleship!
So, I hope in the midst of a sobering chapter, we all leave encouraged today. Though God hands people over to depravity, God is also at work to save his chosen people from this depravity. If you are here today, then I am confident that God’s Spirit at work even now as you hear this. To turn the unbeliever to Christ, and to grow the believer in Christ. Each of us in this life will struggle in one way or another with the sorts of sins described here. But as those who have come to know Christ, let us be encouraged that our direction has been radically and permanently changed. God has pulled us back and is renewing our minds and hearts day by day. I don’t know about you, but when I think about all of this, I can’t help but rejoice. To break forth in praise and appreciation that God has saved me, wretched man that I am! Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.