How Low Can You Go? (Romans 1:32)

Romans 1:32

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 those who practice them.

Over the years I have collected questions about the Christian life that I wish someone had answered for me when I was much younger. One is “Why can’t a person sin just a little bit?” I think this is an important question, because it is where most of us find ourselves much of the time. Most of us would not admit to wanting to sin in big ways, and we probably don’t. We know that sin is destructive. We do not want to make an utter shipwreck of our lives. But we wonder from time to time why we can’t sin “just a little bit.” God forbids all sin, of course. But surely all sins are not equally terrible. What would be so bad about our just dipping into sin now and then—to sort of satisfy our appetite for it, have our fling, and then get back out and go on with our “upright” Christian lives?

Having studied most of the first chapter of Romans carefully, we should know the answer to that question. The problem with just dipping into sin is that sin never stops at that point. The problem with sinning “just a little bit” is that each bit is followed by just a little bit more, until God has been banished from life’s horizons entirely and we have ruined everything.

The Downhill Path

The way this happens is spelled out in the second half of Romans 1 by a threefold repetition of the phrase “God gave them over,” which we have already studied. (It occurs in verses 24, 26, and 28.) Just before this, Paul has shown how we reject God. We reject God by suppressing the knowledge about him that we have received from nature and by allowing the God-like vacuum in our lives to be filled with substitutes. We do it by saying, in effect (though we often do not admit it even to ourselves), “God, we do not want you. We want you to get out of our lives and leave us alone. We want to do our own thing without your interference.”

So that is just what God does! God does not abandon us in the absolute sense, since this is still God’s world and we still have to live in it and conform to the laws of this world, whether we want to or not. But God does abandon us to our own devices in the sense that he withdraws his restraints. He allows us to go our own way, abandoning us judicially to sin’s consequences.

That path is definitely downhill!

It cannot be any other way, of course. If God is the source of all good, as the Bible declares him to be, then to abandon God is to abandon the good and to launch oneself on a path leading in progressive measure to all that is evil. If we will not have God, who is truth, we will find falsehood. If we will not seek God, who is holy, we will pursue perversions. If we will not have God, who is the source of all reality, we will have unreality. We will pursue fantasies and dreams and be disillusioned.

A review seems appropriate at this point. In declaring that God gives us over to our own devices, Paul describes a downhill slide that looks like this:

1. God gave them over to sexual impurity (v. 24). The reference is to fornication and adultery, which, Paul says, have two outcomes. First, they result in the degrading of our bodies. People who have had a variety of sexual partners often testify to this. Second, they result in exchanging what is good and true for what is bad and a deception. Paul calls it “a lie.” Again, many who have sought personal fulfillment through sexual experimentation testify that promises of the “liberated” life were deceptions. The promised satisfaction and fulfillment did not materialize.

2. God gave them over to shameful lusts (v. 26). This refers to perversions, chiefly male homosexuality and lesbianism, and it is a step downward from mere sexual experimentation. This is because, in addition to being merely sinful, these perversions are “unnatural.” That is, they are against nature. Bodies were not meant to function in these ways. Those who sin in these ways do so, therefore, not only against God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments, but also against the very order of creation.

3. God gave them over to a depraved mind (v. 28). When we looked at this verse before, I asked why this is a step further down the ladder of abandonment by God than items one and two. After all, sins of the mind precede sins of the flesh; a person has to think sin before practicing it. So why should this be the third item, rather than the first?

The answer, as we saw earlier, is that this is not the kind of mental depravity Paul is thinking of. It is true that thoughts about evil generally precede evil actions. But here Paul is speaking about the kind of thought perversion that results in the person involved regarding what is good as what (to him or her) appears evil, and what is evil as what (to him or her) appears good. This brings us to the verse with which this great chapter of Romans ends, our text for this study. Verse 32 says of those who have sunk to this point, “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 key word here is “approve.” It means that these people sanction both the evil and the evildoers.

Moral Insanity

This is insanity, of course—moral insanity. But it is important to see that this is exactly the point to which rejection of God and suppression of the truth about God lead us.

It is helpful at this point to think of the story of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, as told in the early chapters of Daniel. The theme of Daniel is the identity of the Most High God, and it is established early in the book when we are told that after Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem, he carried articles from the temple of God in Jerusalem “to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put [them] in the treasure house of his god” (Dan. 1:2). This was a way of saying that, in Nebuchadnezzar’s opinion, his god was stronger than the Jewish God. And so it seemed! Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem. He did not understand that God had used him merely as an instrument of judgment upon his disobedient people, as he had repeatedly said he would do.

But Nebuchadnezzar was not really interested in proving that his god was stronger than the Jews’ God; he was not all that religious. Nebuchadnezzar’s god was only a projection of himself, an alter ego, and the real struggle of the book is therefore actually between Nebuchadnezzar himself and Jehovah. In other words, it is exactly the struggle that Paul depicts in Romans as being between sinful humanity and God. Nebuchadnezzar did not want to acknowledge God, precisely what Paul says we do not want to do. He wanted to run his own life, achieve what he wanted to achieve and then claim the glory for himself for those achievements.

The climax of his rebellion, recorded in Daniel 4, came when Nebuchadnezzar looked over Babylon from the roof of his palace and claimed the glory of God for himself, saying, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). This is the cry of the secular humanist. It describes life as of man, by man, and for man’s glory.

The point for which I introduce this illustration comes now, in the nature of the judgment pronounced upon this powerful but arrogant emperor. Sometimes, when we think of God’s dispensing of judgments, we think of him as acting somewhat arbitrarily, as if he were merely going down a list of punishments to see what punishment he has left for some special sinner. “Let’s see now,” he might muse. “Nebuchadnezzar? What will it be? Not leprosy, not kidney stones, not paralysis, not goiter. Ah, here it is: insanity. That’s what I’ll use with Nebuchadnezzar.” We may think that is what happened, when we read about the voice “from heaven” that declared: “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:31–32).

But this is not the way it happened. God is not arbitrary. He does not operate by sorting through a list of options. Everything God does is significant. So when God caused Nebuchadnezzar to be lowered from the pinnacle of human pride and glory to the baseness of insanity, it was God’s way of saying that this is what happens to all who suppress the truth about God and take the glory of God for themselves. The path is not uphill. It is downhill, and it ends in that moral insanity by which we declare what is good to be evil, and what is evil to be good.

Bestial Behavior

But it is not only insanity that we see in the case of Nebuchadnezzar. We see a dramatization of bestial behavior, too, in the words decreeing that Nebuchadnezzar would “live with the wild animals [and] eat grass like cattle.” Indeed, what came to pass was even worse. We are told that “he was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Dan. 4:33). It is a horrible picture. But it is merely a dramatic Old Testament way of describing what Paul is saying in Romans: If we will not have God, we will not become like God (“like God, knowing good and evil,” Gen. 3:5); on the contrary, we will become like and live like animals.

At this point I always think of Psalm 8, verses 4 through 7, which say:

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars.

which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

you put everything under his feet:

all flocks and herds,

and the beasts of the field.

These verses fix man at a very interesting place in the created order: lower than the angels, or heavenly beings, but higher than the animals— somewhere between. This is what Thomas Aquinas saw when he described man as a mediating being. He is like the angels in that he has a soul. But he is like the beasts in that he has a body. The angels have souls but not bodies, while the animals have bodies but not souls.

But here is the point. Although man is a mediating being, created to be somewhere between the angels and the animals, in Psalm 8 he is nevertheless described as being somewhat lower than the angels rather than as being somewhat higher than the beasts. In other words, although between the angels and the beasts, man is nevertheless destined to look, not downward to the beasts, but upward to the angels and beyond the heavenly beings to God, becoming increasingly like him. If he will not look up and thus become increasingly like God, he will inevitably look down and become like the animals. Like Nebuchadnezzar, he will become beastlike.

Over the last ten or so years I have noticed something very interesting about our culture. I have noticed a number of articles (and sometimes books) that have tended to justify or at least explain bestial human behavior on the ground that we are, after all, “just animals.” We have perversions, but—well, the animals have perversions, too.

Some time ago an article appeared in a scientific journal about a certain kind of duck. Two scientists had been observing a family of these ducks, and they reported something that they called “gang rape” in this duck family. I am sure they did not want to excuse this crime among humans by the inevitable comparison they were making. But I think their point was that gang rape among humans is at least understandable, given our animal ancestry. These scientists had an evolutionary, naturalistic background, and I think they were saying, “After all, gang rape is not that surprising when you consider that even the ducks do it.”

A story of a similar nature appeared in the September 6, 1982, issue of Newsweek magazine. It was accompanied by a picture of a baboon presumably killing an infant baboon, and over this there was a headline which read: “Biologists Say Infanticide Is as Normal as the Sex Drive—And That Most Animals, Including Man, Practice It.” The title says everything. It identifies man as an animal, and it justifies his behavior on the basis of this identification. The logic goes like this: (1) man is an animal; (2) animals kill their offspring; (3) therefore, it is all right (or at least understandable) that human beings kill their offspring. But, of course, the argument is fallacious. Most animals do not kill their offspring. They protect their young and care for them. And even if, in a few rare instances, some animals do kill their young, this is still nothing to compare to the crimes regarding the young of which human beings are capable. In this country alone, for example, we kill over one and a half million babies each year by abortion—in most instances, simply for the convenience of the mother.

Worse Than the Animals

I want to take this a step further, however, and to do that I share the following story. Dr. John Gerstner, Professor Emeritus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was teaching about the depravity of man, and to make his point he compared men and women to rats. After he had finished his address there was a question-and-answer period, and someone who had been offended by the comparison asked Gerstner to apologize. Gerstner did. “I do apologize,” he said. “I apologize profusely. The comparison was terribly unfair … to the rats.” He then went on to show that what a rat does, it does by the gifts of God that make it ratlike. It does not sin. But we, when we behave like rats, behave worse than we should and even worse than rats. We are worse than “beasts” in our behavior.

Do ducks commit rape? I have never observed that particular family of ducks, and I do not know if they do or do not. Perhaps so. But I do know that if rape occurs in the animal world, it is uncommon. Not so with us. In the human race it is frightfully common. Or again, I do not know if baboons actually kill their young. They may. But they do not systematically murder them for their own convenience, as we do.

Is There a Bottom Rung?

Everything I have been describing to this point has concerned the downhill passage of the human race when it turns away from God, based on Romans 1:32, the last verse of this first great section of Paul’s letter. This verse describes the nadir of man’s fall. I have called it the lowest point, the worst point on the downward sliding scale.

But is it really the lowest point? Is it the bottom? Or is there a bottom? Is there a point beyond which sin will not go?

I have asked this last question from time to time in terms of our declining western culture—not so much in an absolute sense but in terms of the moral sensibilities of our nation. I have asked, “Is there a point at which we will pull back from our increasingly rapid decline and say, ‘This is where we stop; this is terrible; this is a point beyond which we will not go’?” Is there such a point in our culture?

If there is, it is certainly not adultery. We have plenty of that.

It is not prostitution. In fact, prostitution is actually legal in some places.

It is not pornography, though Christians have been opposing pornography effectively in some areas.

Where is the point beyond which our culture does not want to go?

I have noticed that in recent years there has been an attempt to define this point at the place where perversions impinge upon children. The argument would go, “It is not possible to forbid anything to adults as long as they want to do something or consent with each other to do it. But we must not allow these things to affect children. Pornography? Yes, but not child pornography. Prostitution? Yes, but not child prostitution.” That sounds good, of course. It gives us the feeling that we are both tolerant—God forbid that we should be intolerant—and moral. But it is sheer hypocrisy. I remember noticing, the first time I was beginning to think along these lines, that at the very time articles were appearing to protest against child pornography and child prostitution, a movie appeared starring Brooke Shields, who was only twelve years old at the time but who played the part of a child prostitute in a brothel in New Orleans at the turn of the century. It was called Pretty Baby. Certain elements of the media suggested that the young actress “matured” through her experience.

Do you see what I am saying? When we are sliding downhill we delude ourselves into thinking that we are only going to dip into sin a little bit or at least that there are points beyond which we will never go, lines we will never cross. But this is sheer fantasy. When we start down that downhill path, there are no points beyond which we will not go and no lines we will not choose to cross—if we live long enough. And even if we die, hell (as I commented in the previous study) is merely our continuing along this dismal, destructive, downhill path forever.

God’s Image Restored

I do not want to leave this section with us at the edge of this awful bottomless pit, however. It is true that our rejection of God has left us looking to the beasts and becoming increasingly like them—indeed, even worse than the beasts—and that left to ourselves there can be no end to this grim descent into depravity. But the gospel, for the sake of which Romans was written, tells us that God has not left us to ourselves. In Christ, he has acted to restore what we are intent on destroying.

I see this in five steps:

1.   We were made in God’s image.

2.   We rejected God in Adam and therefore lost that image; we became, not like God, knowing good and evil, but like Satan.

3.   Having lost the image of God and having ceased to become increasingly like him, we became like beasts and, as I have been pointing out here, even worse than beasts.

4.   Christ became like us, taking a human form upon himself.

5.   He died for us and opened up the possibility of our renewal after his image.

Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 3, first speaking of a veil that has come between ourselves and God, and then adding: “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.… And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (vv. 16, 18).

When we come to Christ, the question is not “How low can you go?” We are done with that. The question is “How high can you rise?” And to that question the answer also is: no limit. We are to become increasingly like the Lord Jesus Christ throughout eternity.[1]

 


[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 193–200). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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