God Gave Them Up (Romans 1:24-28)

Romans 1:24–28

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.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

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.

I do not know whether Oscar Wilde was reflecting more on the divine nature or human nature in saying, “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” But, according to the Book of Romans, he may well have been doing both, and have been correct in both instances.

Thus far in our study of Romans we have been concentrating on human rebellion against God, and we have seen—indeed, Paul has explicitly told us—that the wrath of God “is being revealed from heaven” against men and women because of this rebellion. In what way is God showing wrath? It is clear what we have done. We have (1) suppressed the truth about God; (2) refused to glorify, or worship, God as God; and (3) declined to be thankful. As a result human beings have become “darkened” in their thinking. We have become fools. Nevertheless, up to this point we have not been told specifically of anything that God has actually done to unleash his wrath upon humanity. Now this changes. For the first time in the letter we are told—three times in succession—that God has abandoned men and women to perversion. The sentence says, “God gave them over.” It is found in verses 24, 26, and 28.

But here is the irony. And here is why I quoted Oscar Wilde. Man’s punishment is to be abandoned by God. But, of course, this is precisely what man has been fighting for ever since Adam’s first rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Man has wanted to get rid of God, to push him out of his life. In contemporary terms he is saying, “God, I just want you to leave me alone. Take a seat on that chair over there. Shut up, and let me get on with my life as I want to live it.”

And so God does!

Like the father of the Prodigal Son, he releases the rebellious child, permitting him to depart with all his many possessions and goods for the far country.

Adrift in God’s Universe

Well! Isn’t that what we want? Yes, it is what we think we want. But the problem is that it doesn’t turn out as we anticipate. In fact, it turns out exactly the reverse. We think of God as a miser of happiness, keeping back from us all that would make us happy. We think that by running away from him we will be happy, wild, and free. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead of happiness we find misery. Instead of freedom we find the debilitating bondage of sin.

Many who have studied the Bible for a long time know the phrase I have quoted in the King James wording, but this is a case in which the modern translations do better in capturing the meaning for our day. The King James Version of the Bible used the words “God gave them up” at this point. The King James translators knew what they meant, of course. They meant a judicial abandonment of the human race to the consequences of its rebellion. But, unfortunately, for most of us today those words sound like a simple hands-off policy in which men and women really are freed up to pursue and practice whatever they think will please them. That is not quite the idea. “God gave them up” sounds as if God simply let people drift off to nowhere, like releasing a porcelain pitcher in space. The actual idea is seen much better in the New International Version. For it is not that God gives the human race up to nothing, but rather that he gives it over to the consequences of the rebellious, sinful directions it has taken.

It is like releasing the porcelain pitcher on earth rather than in space. When you let go of the pitcher it does not drift off into nowhere. You release it from your hand to the law of gravity, and when you do that it falls downward and breaks—if the fall is far enough and the ground hard.

The reason for this is in the very nature of things, and in the fact that what they are can never be otherwise. We need to see this. If you or I were God, then we could get away with the kind of rebellion or sin without consequences that we seem to want. We could make the universe run the way we want it. But we cannot do that. The universe with all its laws, physical and moral, is a given—because God is a given. Since God can never be other than he is, the universe will always be as it is. And this means that when you and I rebel against God, we must by the very nature of the case do it on God’s terms and according to God’s laws rather than our own. When we run away from God we think our way will be uphill, because we want it to be so. But the way is actually downhill. We are pulled down by the law of moral gravity—when God lets go.

The Downhill Slope

What happens is illustrated in the case of Jonah, the prophet who tried to run away from God. He rejected God’s call for him to go and preach to Nineveh and instead set off for Tarshish at the far end of the Mediterranean. But he didn’t get where he was going, and his path was constantly downhill until God turned him around and got him going to Nineveh. In the King James Bible, which makes this point a bit neater than the New International Version, we are told four times over that the prophet’s path was downhill. We read that he went “down to Joppa” and that when he found a ship bound for Tarshish he went “down into it” (Jonah 1:3). Then we are told that he had gone “down into the sides of the ship” (v. 5). Still later, after he had been cast overboard, he recounted the experience, saying, “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains” (Jonah 2:6). (The italics are mine.)

Down! Down! Down! Down! It is a sad life history, but it is the experience of all who run from God, and Paul says all men and women do run from God, trying to rearrange the universe to fit their own desires.

In Romans, Paul marks this downward lemming-like rush of the human race in three stages.

1. “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (v. 24). I do not know why, when he set out to trace this downward moral path of human beings, the apostle Paul concentrated on sexual sins, since he could clearly have chosen other sins as well. Perhaps it is because sexual sins are so visible (sins of the spirit are harder to detect) or because the damage in this area is so evident or because this was the obvious, stinking cesspool of corruption in his day and, therefore, something those to whom he was writing would clearly understand. Whatever the reason—and there may be even more reasons than these—it is an excellent example.

Sex is a wonderful gift, a gift imparted to the human race by God. It is a gift to be enjoyed. But it is be enjoyed within the bonds of marriage, not outside of marriage and, above all, not in casual entanglements. If it is, the result is always what Paul declares it will be, namely, “impurity” and the “degrading” of one’s body.

It is evident that hardly anything in Romans 1 is more contemporary so far as our own culture is concerned. Today we are witnessing a frantic pursuit of pleasure that has been called rightly, even by the secular media, “the new hedonism.” That is, ours is seemingly a culture in which casual sex and every other kind of casual pleasure is an ideal. And it is an ideal that has been actualized by many! With what results? At the start of this path the Prodigal Son would no doubt extol it for its freedoms. He would speak of being free to think new thoughts, have new experiences, and shake off all that old inhibiting sense of guilt that bound him previously. But, given time, the feeling changes, and the one who is running away comes inevitably to feel used, taken advantage of, dirty, and betrayed.

Not long ago CBS television ran an hour-long special on the freewheeling lifestyle in California, interviewing particularly many women who had been caught up in it. Interestingly, their nearly universal opinion was that they had been betrayed by the sexual revolution. As one woman said, “All men want from us is our bodies; we have had enough of that to last a lifetime.”

Isn’t it the case that these women were expressing precisely what Paul says in verse 25, when he observes that those who act this way “have exchanged the truth of God for a lie”? Let’s say it clearly, as the world is beginning to recognize: The “new hedonism” and the “sexual revolution” are a deception!

But there is more. There is a second downhill step on this path.…

2. “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (vv. 26–27).

I wrote a moment ago that there is nothing more contemporary in terms of today’s culture than Paul’s description of a declining society in this great first chapter of Romans. This has been clear already in terms of today’s forms of hedonism and the sexual revolution. Unfortunately, the decline becomes even more apparent as Paul, with almost shocking candor, begins to talk about sexual perversions, namely, lesbianism and male homosexuality. For centuries these matters were hardly spoken of in western society. Although some were no doubt practicing these acts, they were considered so reprehensible that a moral person not only was not to speak about them, but he or she was not even to know what such vices involved. But today? Today they are written about with explicit detail in virtually every newspaper and magazine in our land. Grade-school children discuss them. Not only are we not shocked—but we have become complacent, as if this were a natural expression of an upright spirit.

“Natural” is the important word here—Paul uses it in verse 27, and the opposite term, “unnatural,” in verse 26—because it explains why this stage is a further step along the downward moral path.

Let me elaborate on that statement. Fornication and adultery (which are in view in verse 24) are not “unnatural” sins, for they are not against nature. Of course, they are true sins, for they break the moral law of God. They result in “impurity” and in the “degrading” of our bodies, as Paul says. But they are not unnatural. On the contrary, they are in one sense quite natural. They are accomplished by using one’s body in a natural way. Not so with homosexuality! Homosexuality is “unnatural,” and it is accomplished by using one’s body in an unnatural way, that is, against nature. In the first case, we may well need the Bible to tell us that fornication is wrong. The popular song asks, “How can it be wrong when it seems so right?” But in the case of homosexuality we do not even need this special revelation. A look at one’s sexual apparatus should convince anyone that practices of this kind are not normal. They were not meant to be.

Perhaps this is why at this point, and at no other point in his discussion of the results of our rebellion, Paul speaks of a specific judgment of God upon the sin itself: “Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (v. 27). Up to this point Paul has not been saying that God punishes these or other particular sins with particular penalties, but rather that the abandonment of human beings to the committing of the sin is itself the punishment. That is, God punishes you by letting you do what you want. But not here, at least not only that. Here Paul speaks of a particular penalty “received in themselves” by those who sin in this way.

Is Paul speaking of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)? No! He had never heard of AIDS, though he was probably thinking at least in part of other sexual diseases. But the point is irrelevant. What Paul is saying is that sin does and will have consequences, and “unnatural” sins will have particularly “unnatural” consequences.

Indeed, it is not only Paul who would say this. Not long ago Time magazine ran a cover story on AIDS, called “The Big Chill: Fear of AIDS,” in which even this obviously secular magazine spoke religiously. It spoke of AIDS as “a vague sort of retribution, an Old Testament-style revenge.” It quoted novelist Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying and a former high priestess of sexual abandon, as saying, “It’s hard enough to find attractive single men without having to quiz them on their history of bisexuality and drug use, demand blood test results and thrust condoms into their hands. Wouldn’t it be easier to give up sex altogether and join some religious order?” Time also quoted a Los Angeles entertainment writer: “AIDS pushes monogamy right back up there on the priority list.”

Why is this? Why are even secular magazines and newspapers beginning to sound like prophets? It is because of the given, because of the unchangeable physical and moral character of the universe in which we live. We may not like it; most of us don’t. We would change it if we could. But we cannot. It is God’s universe. It does not change. Therefore, the only wise thing is to come to terms with it, repent of sin, and come back to God in the way he has provided: through faith in the sacrifice of himself for us by Jesus Christ.

Yet there is something more…

3. “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” (v. 28). The first time I began to think about this threefold repetition of the sentence “God gave them over” in this section of Romans, it seemed to me that at this point something was apparently wrong with the order. Paul is tracing a downward declining path, resulting from humanity’s rebellion against God, yet here the order doesn’t seem to be downward. We can understand that when men and women abandoned God, God abandoned them: first, to sexual impurity and, second, to sexual perversions. That is surely downhill. But now we find that God abandons them “to a depraved mind.” Isn’t that something that should have come first? Doesn’t sin originate in the mind? Shouldn’t the third of these consequences have been listed first, before the other two consequences?

I was puzzled by this sequence until I realized that the “depraved mind” about which Paul is writing is not just any sinful mind—he has earlier talked about the generally foolish minds and generally darkened hearts of human beings—but about the specifically “depraved mind” created by continuing down this awful path for a lifetime. At the end is a mind not merely foolish or in error, but totally depraved. It is a mind so depraved that it begins to think that what is bad is actually good and that what is good is actually bad. May I say it? It is the mind of the devil, which is what Adam chose to pursue when he followed the dangling carrot: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Adam did not become “like God,” knowing good and evil; he became “like Satan.” And, being like Satan, in time he came to call the good bad and the bad good. How else can one explain man’s continual flight from him from whom alone all good gifts come (cf. James 1:17)?

The evidence of this bottom stage of depravity is disclosed in verse 32, the end of Romans 1: “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.” The new word here is “approve.” It is not only that people do what is sinful. A person might do that, be ashamed of his or her action, and then repent of it. But here, at the very end of this awful downhill path of judicial abandonment described in this chapter of Romans, the individuals involved actually come to approve of what is evil.

How do you appeal for good to a person who has become like that? Every argument you could possibly use would be reversed. The case is hopeless.

“How Can I Give You Up?”

Hopeless? Yes, but not for God. For if it were, why would Paul even be writing this letter? As a matter of fact, if it were hopeless, he would not be writing it, for he was one of the most hopeless cases of all, as he reminds us several times in his epistles.

We are focusing here on the idea that “God gave them up.” The way I want to state this is to say that although in a sense God has certainly given the race over to the natural outworkings of its rebellious ways—a judgment we see about us on all hands—in another sense God has not “given up” at all. At least he has not given up on those on whom he has set his affection. I think of the way in which he speaks through Hosea to the sinful nation of Israel:

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?

How can I hand you over, Israel?

How can I treat you like Admah?

How can I make you like Zeboiim?

My heart is changed within me;

all my compassion is aroused.

I will not carry out my fierce anger,

nor devastate Ephraim again.”

Hosea 11:8–9

If God actually did give up on humanity forever, all would be hopeless. The Lord Jesus Christ would not have come. He would not have died for our sin. There would be no gospel. But that is not the case. Jesus did come. There is a gospel. The way back to the eternal, sovereign, holy God is open. This is the Good News. Hallelujah!

And need I say more? If there is the gospel, if this is still the age of God’s grace, if God has not given up on us ultimately and forever—though he will eventually do that for some one day—then we are not to give up on other people either. How can we, if we have tasted the elixir of grace ourselves?

We tend to give up, at least if the sin of the one we are abandoning is different from our own. We think of others as too far gone, or as having sinned beyond the point of a genuine repentance. Or, terrible as it is, we think of their sin as proof, evidence, that God has abandoned them forever. Many have done that with homosexuals. They regard AIDS as the kind of divine judgment on this sin that precludes our having any pity on the victims or working to bring them the only salvation they can know. Is AIDS a judgment? I believe it is, just like many other consequences of sin. But it is not the final judgment. And until that final judgment breaks forth on our race, it is still the day of grace in which all who know the Good News and are obeying the voice of Christ in taking it to the lost can be hopeful.

Someone once spoke to John Newton, the man who had been a slave trader and a “slave to slaves” earlier in his life, about a person he regarded as a hopeless case. He despaired of him. Newton replied, “I have never despaired for any man since God saved me.” We should not despair either. The consequences of sin are dreadful. But they alone, if nothing else, should compel us forward as agents of God’s great grace and reconciliation.[1]


[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 177–184). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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