Universal Lawlessness

This passage consists of an extended exposition of the reality of human sin and the consequent justness of God’s wrath against all people everywhere. It is clear from Paul’s emphasis throughout, that unless we feel the rightness of God’s verdict of condemnation against all people, based upon a common standard of righteousness, we have not understood the biblical concept of sin and cannot, therefore, have the biblical concept of atonement, justification, grace and faith. In this specific portion of that large argument, Paul argues from the biblical presentation of man’s creation in the image of God and the assumption of the law written on the heart.


I. The Gospel presupposes Wrath – 1:18 -This verse begins with “For.” That means Paul is now going to explain why, in the gospel, righteousness is revealed by faith. The good news, in other words, is just this, that God, who can never be separated from his righteousness, has nevertheless made a way, consistent with his unchanging righteousness, of displaying that righteousness apart from our condemnation.

A. If, however, we look at universal reality, we must conclude that already wrath is operative, not fully waiting for the eventual full display in eternity, but popping over the edge of the cauldron like vigorously boiling water.

  1. So, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” “Revealed,” that is, “is being revealed,” from God himself (“from heaven”). God is actively involved in all the events of this world, having subjected the present creation to vanity (8:20), until the times for two other revelations to take place: “The glory which shall be revealed to and in us” 8:18; and the “revelation of the sons of God” (8:19). Thus, there is no time when some aspect of God’s revelation in not occurring—presently differing degrees of wrath along with displays of mercy and eventually his unclouded glory along with the full number of his elect, the “sons of God.”
  2. This revelation of wrath comes against “ungodliness.” Ungodliness” is the refusal to give due worship to God who is worthy of love, praise, honor. It is particularly related to the first table of the commandments, beginning with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
  3. Wrath also comes against a related sphere of sin, “unrighteousness.” Unrighteousness is the purposeful violation of the law of God, which Paul will argue is known in the conscience of fallen humanity.
  4. God’s wrathful interaction with this present age comes because all present activity of men is in some sense a “suppression of truth,” motivated by unrighteousness. Our fallenness has curved us in on ourselves. As a result, we pervert the pleasures that God has established in this world to be experienced in harmony with his purpose and righteousness and as an avenue of joy in him and gratitude to him. We treat them as an end in themselves and without reference to him.

B. This specific argument, in which Paul mentions ungodliness once and unrighteousness twice, makes it all the more astounding that a means can be devised for salvation (1:16) that is a display of the righteousness of God (1:17).



II. No one anywhere is exempt from this, for all people everywhere resist what is plain – 1:19-32 This passage begins with the assumption that the revelation of God’s moral nature and requirements are manifest with such clarity that all human crime, sexual perversion, meanness, and selfishness are practiced in the face of a clear knowledge that they should do otherwise.

A. The tendency to idolatry proceeds in opposition to the revelation of the pure, infinite, and excellent spirituality of God’s nature. 19-23. This is a description of ungodliness.

  1. “What may be known of God is manifest in them.” Having been made in the image of God, many aspects of his personality, power, righteousness, creativity naturally are resident within us. These are smothered by our sin and we now walk in “futility of mind, having [our] understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in [us] because of the blindness of our hearts” (Ephesians 4:17, 18)
  2. “God has shown it to them.” This is not a passive revelation, but an active involvement of God in the world that he created and sustains. “He breathes in the air, he shines in the light.” “Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:2, 3).
  3. The constant witness of the created order of the world is that an infinite intelligence created it, established it in all of its intricate and vibrant order, and sustains it (20). God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen in he “things that are made.” God’s power and his very goodness is demonstrated. None is above him, all excellence dwells in infinite perfection in him, none should be worshipped but him. None, therefore, is excusable from infinite guilt for having refused to worship this being who clearly is the greatest and best of beings. Paul proclaimed to the Athenians, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is he worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:24, 25).
  4. “Although they knew God.” Paul is confident that the knowledge of God either primordially exists in the human consciousness as an innate knowledge, or is the natural conclusion of immediate consciousness as empirical impressions are formed through developing human experience.
  5. In whatever manner this knowledge comes, the knowledge is rejected. They [We!] do not respond in the most rational way toward the knowledge of God: instead of glorifying him as God and showing a sense of praise and worship toward this glorious being, we refuse to acknowledge his glory; instead of thankfulness for his provision that he constantly pours out, we refuse gratitude.
  6. By refusing to respond in ways fitting for such a knowledge as the knowledge of God, sinners prefer to be “futile in their thoughts.” This moral obloquy establishes a heart of moral and spiritual darkness. Both mind and affections are corrupt so we show that we do not like to retain God in our knowledge and we refuse to love him.
  7. The great irony of this is, that such persons who exclude God from their knowledge consider themselves wise, superior in both mind and emotional security, and independent of any need for divine revelation or intervention. In reality, they “moron” themselves. They ignore two most basic confessions that should be irrefutably obvious to every ant of the earth: ‘How great Thou art; how small I am.”
  8. In this independent wisdom, they open to themselves and others a life filled with rampant idolatry, a worship of the natural order rather than a dependence on the omnipotent, righteous, supernatural, self-existent God. They value porpoises more than human babies, lizards more than wheat crops, the wilderness more than human flourishing. Because they look at the world as a merely natural phenomenon of some kind of independent origin apart from divine power, providence, and purpose they give it a value disconnected from the divine purpose of its serving humanity. A bizarre example of this is the plea of Joaquin Phoenix at the Academy Awards that we stop stealing both calves and milk from cows. How distressed would he be with God’s instruction to the Israelites in Numbers 18: 17, 18 and the multitude of similar passages. Also compare Acts 10:9-16.

B. Idolatry led to other inversions of reality and prompted a devotion to sensual emphasis on the human body, and thus a celebration of immorality. 24-25

  1. Note that this precipitous decline into sin is both moral turpitude on the part of humanity and judgment on the part of God. “Therefore, God also gave them up to uncleanness.” God is under no obligation to stop sinners in their purposeful pursuit of all the corruptions that arise from their refusal to embrace the knowledge of God. Though he gives them up to this decline (See also 2 Thess. 2:10-12), he is pure, holy, and just in this form of judgment.
  2. Because the first human relationship was between man and woman, and it was intended to give them both pleasure and also be the means for propagating humanity on the earth, among the most prominent manifestations of rebellion against God is the misuse of the gift of sexuality. None need to be convinced that “uncleanness,” indulgence in lust, and dishonoring the chasteness of the sexual relationship is prominent. Such an unfaithful use of God’s good gift gives rise to the foolishness of flaunting human flesh and also the most sorrowful and horrific stories of abuse and depersonalization in our society, and virtually every earthly society since the fall.
  3. Such rampant sexual destructiveness arises from believing the lie of Satan that placed personal pleasure against the worship of God as the giver of every good and perfect gift. We thus worship his gifts and become perverse idolaters, rather worship the Giver to find the true fulfillment. One creation mandate was to subdue the earth. He has placed all things under our feet (Psalm 8) to be used in subservience to the image-bearers of God and for their well-being. But presently we do not see all things under our feet. Instead these gifts often dominate us, subdue us (Hebrews 2:5-8), and becomes objects of our worship.

C. Such devotion to the human body, per se, broke down barriers beyond morality destroying even what is obviously the natural relation between the bodies of the sexes leading to homosexuality. 26-27

  1. This is the second “God gave them up.” The decline of morality into illicit actions that are opposed, not only to the stated purpose of God, but to the very physical makeup of men and women. Again, we see that God’s judgment can come in passive ways, in which he only permits the destructive tendencies of sin to come to fruition in the lives of insistent rebels. We know also that God’s judgment can be active as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah and even the flood (See 2 Peter 2:4-10).
  2. Some biblical interpreters who seek to dodge the clear denunciation of homosexuality stated in this passage, claim that for those with a predisposition to same sex attraction, their engagement in homosexual relations is not opposed to nature, but, for them, in accord with it. This sidesteps the obvious reference that Paul has to God’s intention in creating both male and female and is intention in marriage (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:21-25). Paul in his use of the term “natural” is not affirming that the corruptions of human nature brought about by the fall are now natural and therefore right for some people. He is clear in stating that it is a corruption for men to leave “the natural use of the woman,” and likewise for women to exchange “the natural use for what is against nature.” Nature refers both to the stated purpose of God in creating both man and woman and craftsmanship in establishing the obvious complementary physical aspects of their bodies.

D. This abandonment to sexual perversion begins to magnify the corruption of all interpersonal virtue. (28-31) Again we find, for the third time, that “God gave them up.” This is because they had no desire to “retain God in their knowledge.”

  1. In verses 20-23 we find Pauls’ exposition of violations of the first table of the commandments which he denominates “ungodliness” (18).
  2. In verses 24-27, Paul focuses in particular on the rebellion of fallen humanity against the most basic reality of our own creation in the image of God—“Male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:27) as an element of his discussion of “unrighteousness” (1:18 cf 1:29)
  3. Verses 28 – 31 give a sampling the many way in which humanity violates commandments 6-10: dishonoring parents, committing murder, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting.


E. This is done in spite of an internal knowledge that such conduct is worthy of death. Paul’s continued insistence that intrinsic to our humanity as created in the image of God is a consciousness of the wrongness and culpability of violations of God’s holy and righteous standards. But the boldness of this rebellion is seen not only in personal conduct but in an encouragement of others in it. (32) Violators of God’s law become bolder in it themselves and “approve” it in others.

F. The flood of corruption that sinners pursue with increasing abandon and with such destructive delight prepares us for the revelation of both justice and grace, free mercy and reconciling love in the gospel.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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