Paul takes aim first mainly at the idolatry of the pagans. A knowledge of God was available to them, but they refused it, turning instead to gods of their own making. And their accompanying choice of immorality was confirmed by the true God, who “gave them over” (three times: vv. 24, 26, 28) to their sins. Here then we find the explanation of the gross immorality of the nations and the long history of human unrighteousness. In this section the Gentiles are mainly in focus, but this does not exclude an application also to the Jews.
The background of vv. 18–32 has been much discussed. Since the use of the past tense predominates in this section, are we to conclude that Paul has in view some epoch in the past when sin manifested itself with special intensity? This is unlikely, for he moves now and again to the present tense also. The conclusion is that the description fits his own time as well as earlier ages. If this were not so, the passage could scarcely deserve a place in the development of the theme. At the same time, deliberate allusion to earlier eras is not impossible.
Another problem is raised by the sweeping nature of the charge made in this portion of the letter. Are we to believe Paul is charging every pagan with this total list of offenses? Such a conclusion is unwarranted. Sinful people are capable of committing all of them, but not every individual is necessarily guilty of each and every one.
A further query concerns the originality of the presentation. Was the apostle dependent on earlier sources? The image of the fall of Adam in the Genesis account (Ge 1–3) seems to hover in the background (cf. v. 23 with Ge 1:20, 24). As we will see, somewhat the same ground is covered in the work of Second Temple Judaism titled Wisdom of Solomon. This product of Hellenistic Judaism reproaches the nations for their idols and, like Paul, notes a connection between idolatry and fornication (Wis 14:12). But the development of the thought is not fully the same, for a resort to idolatry is related to human ignorance of God (13:1), whereas Paul emphasizes a limited knowledge of God gleaned from his works. In another Jewish source (T. Naph. 3:2–4), the forsaking of the Lord by the Gentiles is noted as resulting in sexual perversion:
Sun, moon, and stars do not alter their order; thus you should not alter the Law of God by the disorder of your action. The Gentiles, because they wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order, and have devoted themselves to stones and sticks, patterning themselves after wandering spirits. But you, my children, shall not be like that: In the firmament, in the earth, and in the sea, in all products of his workmanship discern the Lord who made all things, so that you not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of nature.
Undoubtedly, the synagogues of the Diaspora made use of material of this kind in trying to proselytize Gentiles. None of it would have seemed strange to Jewish readers. And they would have been fully on track with the criticism of pagan immorality.
18 At the outset it is important to observe the correlation between righteousness and wrath. In parallel statements, both are represented as being “revealed” (apokalyptetai, GK 636, as in v. 17). As previously observed, full salvation in terms of divine righteousness awaits the future, being eschatological in nature; but salvation also belongs to the present and is appropriated by faith. Similarly, wrath is an even more obviously eschatological concept, yet it is viewed here as parallel to the manifestation of righteousness, belonging therefore to the present age. It is “revealed” or “being revealed” (so NIV, reflecting the progressive present tense). This means that the unfolding of history involves a disclosure of the wrath of God against sin, seen in the terrible corruption and perversion of human life. This does not mean that the price of sin is to be reckoned only in terms of the present operation of wrath, for there is a day of judgment awaiting the sinner (2:5). But the divine verdict is already in some measure anticipated in the present. “Paul regards the monstrous degradation of pagan populations, which he is about to describe (vv. 24–27 and 29–32), not as a purely natural consequence of their sin, but as a solemn intervention of God’s justice in the history of mankind, an intervention which he designates by the term paradidonai [GK 4140]—to give over” (Godet, 101).
Paul states that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.” It is difficult to accept Dodd’s assertion, 47–50, that we are mistaken to conclude that God is angry. Dodd notes that Paul never uses the verb “be angry” with God as its subject. He further points out that in the Pauline corpus “the wrath of God” appears elsewhere only in Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:6. Most of the time we encounter the simple “wrath” or “the wrath,” which appears intended, according to Dodd, to describe “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” It is precarious, however, to make much of the fact that God is not directly linked with wrath in every Pauline reference. The context usually makes it clear when the divine wrath is intended. In the passage before us, the words “from heaven” are decisive. As Gustaf Dalman (The Words of Jesus [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909], 219) points out, “from heaven” in the Gospels means “from God.” Furthermore, since there is a wrath to come that will inevitably involve God, there is no reason why he should not involve himself in manifesting his wrath in the present. Human objection to the idea of the wrath of God is often molded, sometimes unconsciously, by the human experience of anger as passion or desire for revenge. But this is only a human display of wrath, and one that is corrupted. God’s wrath is not to be thought of as merely or purely an emotion but primarily as his active judgment (cf. 13:4–5, where its juridical character is evident). It is “the necessary response of a perfect and holy God to violations of his will” (Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002], 56).
The object of the divine wrath is twofold—the “godlessness and wickedness” of humanity. Paul explicates the first term in vv. 19–27 and the second in vv. 28–32. “Godlessness” (asebeia, GK 813) means a lack of reverence, an impiety that arrays a person against God, not simply in terms of neglect but also of rebellion. “Wickedness” (adikia, “unrighteousness,” GK 94) means injustice, relating to the immorality that destroys human relationships. The two together point to human failure regarding the commandments of both tables of the Decalogue. As Nygren, 101, puts it, “a wrong relation to God is the ultimate cause of man’s corruption.”
They “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). Unrighteousness has a blinding effect not only on its perpetrators but also hinders others from seeing the truth. Presumably the truth referred to here is basically the truth about God (cf. v. 25). Suppression of the truth implies knowledge of the truth, and what this involves is explained next.
19–20 The creation bears clear witness to its Maker, and the evidence is “plain to them.” Here Paul enters into a discussion of what is usually designated as natural revelation in distinction from the special revelation that comes through the Scriptures. Four characteristics are noted. First, it is a clear and perceivable testimony, as the word “plain” implies. Second, from the use of “understood” (v. 20), the revelation does not stop with perception but is expected to include reflection, the drawing of conclusions about the Creator. Third, it is a constant testimony, maintained “since the creation of the world” (cf. Ac 14:17). Fourth, it is a limited testimony in that it reflects God in certain aspects only, namely, “his eternal power and divine nature.” One has to look elsewhere for the full expression of his love and grace, i.e., to the special revelation of Scripture and especially to the revelation of God in his Son (Jn 1:14). Natural revelation is sufficient to make humanity responsible: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5; cf. Ps 19:1–4; Isa 40:12–31). But such knowledge is not by itself sufficient to accomplish salvation. The element of power is common to the two spheres of nature (v. 20) and grace (v. 16). Acquaintance with it in the former area should have prepared people to expect it in the latter. But they have failed and are left “without excuse.”
21–22 Despite the knowledge of God conveyed to human beings through the creation, they failed to act on it. They neither “glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” Humans are religious beings, and if they refuse to let God have the place of preeminence that is rightfully his, then they will put something or someone in God’s place.
The suggestion that emerges from “their thinking became futile” is that mythology and idolatry grew out of humanity’s insistent need to recognize some power in the universe greater than itself, coupled with the refusal to give God the place of supremacy. It is highly suggestive that the verb “to become futile” (mataioō, GK 3471) is paralleled by a nominal form (tōn mataiōn, “worthless things,” GK 3469) used in Acts 14:15 for idols. It is clear that idols are unreal and unprofitable, and their service can only lead to futility and further estrangement from the true and living God. The irony of v. 22 should not be missed: Supposed wisdom so often turns out to be foolishness (cf. 1 Co 1:23–29).
23 This abandonment of God in favor of inferior objects of worship is traced in a descending scale here. “Mortal man” is the first substitution. The Creator is forsaken in preference for the creature. Scripture gives us an example of the deification of a human in the case of Nebuchadnezzar (Da 3:1–7; cf. Daniel’s rebuke of Belshazzar in 5:23). In Paul’s day, the cult of Caesar had spread throughout the empire. Before long, Caesar and Christ would be competing for the worship of the Roman Empire. In modern times, the Western world may have outgrown crass idolatry, but humanism has subtly injected the worship of the human being without the trappings. God is quietly ruled out and humanity is placed on the throne.
The next stage is the worship of animals. Verse 23 owes its wording largely to Psalm 106:20. The context there refers to the sin of Israel in making a calf at Horeb and bowing down to this molten image (see Ex 32). Paul makes one change in the text of the psalm, which reads, “They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass” (cf. Wis 11:15; 12:24; 13:10). To the psalmist, God is the glory of the Israelites. Paul seems to make the glory of God his spirituality, in contrast to any attempt to express his majestic excellence in physical terms (cf. Ex 20:4). Whereas Paul is dealing with a characteristic sin of paganism, in the allusion to Horeb he resorts to OT history for an illustration. God did not and could not condone idolatry in the people he had chosen. His judgment fell heavily when there was no repentance (cf. Ex 32:28), even to the point of desolation and deportation from the land he had given to Israel. Jewish readers would have been very familiar with the polemic against idolatry (see, e.g., Isa 44:9–20).
24 The opening word, “therefore,” carries the reader all the way back to the mention of the revelation of God’s wrath, taking in also what lies between. The false worship just pictured is God’s judgment for abandoning the true worship. Ironically and tragically, religion in its various cultic forms is a species of punishment for spurning the revelation God has given of himself in nature. This should dispose of the naive notion that religion as such is necessarily a beneficial thing for mankind. On the contrary, it is in many cases a means of keeping people so occupied with falsehood that they never arrive at a confrontation with the true God.
“God gave them over” becomes a refrain (vv. 24, 26, 28) that in each instance follows the reference to their own decision: “they exchanged” (vv. 23, 25–26). God in effect confirms the choices already made. Here the reference is to the judgment of God (cf. delivering over “to Satan,” 1 Co 5:5; 1 Ti 1:20); it is also used of God’s judgment on Israel for idolatry (Ac 7:42). In our passage, the reference is principally to Gentiles. (Israel was largely purged of idolatry by means of the captivity in Babylon.) We are not told how this “giving over” was implemented, but most likely we are to think of it in negative terms—i.e., that God simply took his hands off and let willful rejection of himself produce its ugly results. There is no direct, redemptive intervention here such as was granted to Israel by sending prophets to rebuke God’s people concerning their unfaithfulness.
It is no surprise to find reference to sexual immorality here. In Jewish polemic, a connection between idolatry and sexual immorality was often made (cf. Wis 14:12). How true is the observation that “their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). Paul was no stranger to the matter he discusses here. Writing from Corinth, where prostitution was so common, he must have been keenly aware of this scourge that affected the moral life of the city so adversely.
25 While many versions are content to render it “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” the definite article precedes “lie” and probably should be brought out in the translation. This is the lie above all others—the contention that something or someone is to be venerated in place of the true God. Bengel, 26, makes the laconic observation that this is “the price of mythology.”
The indictment here is that by a wretched exchange humanity came to worship and serve “created things rather than the Creator.” An alternative translation is possible—“more than” (para) in place of “rather than.” But the flow of the argument demands the latter. It is not that humanity grants God a relative honor in their devotion, but none at all. They have wholly rid themselves of him by substituting other objects in his place. This should be sufficient to banish the notion that in the practice of idolatry people simply use the idol as a means of worshiping God (cf. Hos 14:3). Contemplating this abysmal betrayal, the apostle cannot resist an outburst to counteract it. The Creator “is forever praised.” God’s glory remains, even though unacknowledged by many of his creatures. There is only one true God.
26–27 For the second time the sad refrain is sounded—“God gave them over” again to immorality, with emphasis on perversion in sexual relations. The sequence Paul follows—idolatry, then immorality—raises the connection between the two. Sanday and Headlam, 50, make a helpful suggestion: “The lawless fancies of men invented their own divinities. Such gods as these left them free to follow their own unbridled passions.” Men and women went so far as to project their own license on to their gods, as a perusal of the Homeric poems readily reveals. Sinning against God results in their sinning against their own nature.
Paul’s use of “exchanged” is suggestive. The first exchange, that of the truth for the lie, is followed by another—the upsetting of the normal course of nature in sexual relations. Instead of using the ordinary terms for men and women, Paul employs arsenes (“males,” GK 781) and thēleia (“females,” GK 2559). This perversion is the unique contrivance of the human species, not being found in the animal kingdom. It was apparently abundantly evident in first-century Rome. At the end of this section, the apostle uses two expressions, “received” and “due penalty,” which in the original involve the idea of recompense, the punishment being in keeping with the offense. It can hardly be denied that for Paul homosexuality is “unnatural” (para physis, GK 5882; lit., “against nature,” v. 26), and involves “shameful lusts.” His perspective would have been dictated by the OT (e.g., Lev. 18:22; 20:13). This is a subject that in our day of open advocacy has brought a new urgency and requires a special sensitivity. Stuhlmacher’s conclusion, 37, seems wise: “But now that in the course of the history of the church Paul’s general formulations have led simply to excommunicating homosexuals, instead of getting to the root of their distinct behavior, accepting them, and helping them, there does exist for us today a reason not to repeat Paul’s statements without reflection!”
To sum up, what people do with God has much to do with their character and lifestyle. Nygren, 111, writes, “When man attempts to escape from God into freedom, the result really is that he falls prey to the forces of corruption.” Throughout the passage the human race is represented as active—seeing, thinking, doing. They are not represented as victimized, as taken captive against their will, or as the dupes of evil influences from outside themselves.
28–32 Here the second key word of v. 18 (adikia, NIV, “wickedness; NASB, “unrighteousness,” GK 94) reappears (v. 29), indicating that this section is to be given over almost totally to a picture of the havoc wrought in human relations because of suppressing the knowledge of God. Paul describes the sinful world that we know all too well from experience. There is a wordplay in the Greek—people “did not think it worthwhile” (edokimasan, GK 1507) to retain God in their knowledge, so God in turn gave them over to a “depraved [adokimon, GK 99] mind,” which led them in turn to commit all kinds of sin. It is God’s function to judge, but human beings have usurped that prerogative in order to sit in judgment on him and dismiss him from their lives. The prior emphasis on the mind is in accord with the appraisal of our Lord, who traced the wellspring of sinful acts to the inner life rather than to environmental factors (Mk 7:20–23). The depraved mind is explained in terms of what it approves and plans—“to do what ought not to be done,” namely, what is “offensive to man even according to the popular moral sense of the Gentiles, i.e., what even natural human judgment regards as vicious and wrong” (TDNT 3:440).
29–31 Scholars have found it difficult to detect any satisfactory classification in the long list of offenses included here. It can be pointed out, however, that the initial group contains broad, generic descriptions of sin. The first of these, “wickedness” or “unrighteousness” (adikia), by its derivation, is the antithesis of righteousness, denoting the absence of what is just. The term “iniquity” expresses it rather well. It necessitates the creation of laws to counteract its disruptiveness, lest society itself be rendered impossible. The next term, “evil” (ponēria, GK 4504), denotes what is evil not in the sense of calamity but with full ethical overtones, signifying what is sinister and vile. This is the term used when the devil is called “the evil one.” The third word, “greed” (pleonexia, GK 4432), indicates the relentless urge to acquire more (cf. Col 3:5). “Depravity” is an attempt to render kakia (GK 2798), a term that indicates a condition of moral evil, emphasizing its internal and resident character. It is related to the word translated “malice” (kakoētheias, GK 2799) later in the text, but the latter goes further, denoting malignity, a mind-set that attributes evil motives to others without provocation.
Among the final twelve phrases, “God-haters” (theostygeis, GK 2539) stands out, since it alone is related directly to an attitude toward the Almighty. But it is not isolated, not introduced without reason. The hatred that vents itself on God readily finds objects of its displeasure among his creatures. When human beings come to the place of worshiping themselves, overweening and insolent pride is the inevitable attitude assumed toward others. Some of the descriptions Paul uses here are not found again in his writings or elsewhere in the NT, but four of them occur in 2 Timothy 3:2–3 in predictions of the state of society in the last days.
32 The final item in the indictment is climactic. It is prefaced by the reminder that people have not lacked a sufficient knowledge of “God’s righteous decree” (to dikaiōma [GK 1468] tou theou), God’s requirement (see 2:26; 8:4). If the knowledge of his “eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20) was sufficient to obligate them to worship God with gratitude for his benefits, the knowledge of his righteousness innate in their very humanity was sufficient to remind them that the price of disobedience would be death. Yet they were not deterred from their sinful ways by this realization. In fact, they were guilty of the crowning offense of applauding those who practiced wickedness in its various manifestations. Instead of repenting of their own misdeeds and seeking to deter others, they promoted wrongdoing by encouraging it in others, allying themselves with wanton sinners in defiant revolt against a righteous God.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. (T. Longman III &. Garland, David E., Ed.)The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.