And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. – Romans 1:28-32 ESV
This is the third time Paul uses the phrase, “God gave them up.” By this time, we should be able to see the seriousness of Paul’s point. If God releases men to live as they wish to live, separated from Him by rejecting His very existence or re-imagining their own version of Him, the outcome is less-than-ideal. Without God, the one true God, man is left to his own devices, and their foolish hearts become increasingly darkened. Despite their self-proclaimed wisdom, they become fools, incapable of discerning right from wrong, righteousness from unrighteousness. The prophet Isaiah wrote about these kinds of people in his day.
What sorrow for those who drag their sins behind them with ropes made of lies, who drag wickedness behind them like a cart! (Isaiah 5:18 NLT).
What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever. (Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT).
When a man decides he has no need of God, he loses far more than his awareness of the Creator. The rejection or reinvention of God is a dangerous game to play. The NIV translates verse 28 this way: “since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God.” They basically said, “We don’t need God.” So God allowed them to experience life without Him. He “gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” Without God in their lives, they lose the capacity to think wisely. As Isaiah said, they end up calling evil good and good evil. Their minds become twisted and their logic becomes skewed. And Paul states that they become “filled” with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, and malice. They become, literally, “filled to the brim.” Unrighteousness describes anything that is contrary to what God has deemed right or just. Evil has to do with man living out his godless purposes and desires in depraved ways. Covetousness is simply greed or the insatiable need for more. It is the opposite of contentment. Malice is a shameless desire to do harm to others. These characteristics fill those who reject God, and they end up manifesting themselves in a variety of ways. Paul provides us with a fairly sobering list: “envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossiping, slander, hate for God, insolence, haughtiness or pride, boasting, invention of evil, disobedience to parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness.”
And here’s the worst part. Not only do they do these things. They give their full consent and approval to anyone else who does them too. Even though they know “that those who practice such things deserve to die,” they do them anyway. They become driven by unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, and malice. It ends up filling them and overflowing out of them. It was Chrystostom who said, “the one who praises the sin of others if far worse than the one who sins himself” (Chrystostom, Homilies on Romans). Paul warned Timothy that a day was coming when people would not want to hear the truth anymore. They would look for teachers who would approve or their actions and tell them that their lifestyles were perfectly acceptable. “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV). The Greek word Paul used for myths is mythos and it refers to something that is invented, a fiction or falsehood. Without God, men will invent their own form of righteousness. They will determine their own ethical and moral standards. And then they will seek out those who will tell them their unrighteous actions are acceptable. That is the world in which we live today. Sadly, there are pastors all across the country who are more than willing to tickle the ears of their congregations, telling them what they want to hear, approving of their lifestyle choices and, as a result, denying the truth of God.
We live in a day when the cry for tolerance has drowned out God’s call for righteousness. We have become accepting and accommodating of all kinds of attitudes and actions that God has deemed unrighteous and unacceptable. It is not loving to allow someone to live according to a lie. It is not merciful to hide the truth from someone who is deceived. It was Jesus who said, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:21-32 NLT). The gospel of God is about the righteousness of God made available to men through the gift of His Son. Left to his own devices, man will never achieve or accomplish the degree of righteousness that God demands. Even those who claim to believe in God, the religious, will fail in their efforts to live up to God’s righteous standards. That is why Paul says that all men are without excuse. All stand before God as guilty. But the good news is that Jesus came to die for sinners. He came to pay the price for our guilt and to free us from condemnation. But for a man to be free, he must accept the truth of his own sin and the gift of God’s Son. He must understand the reality of his guilt and the just outcome of his sin: death. Then he must accept the free gift of God’s grace and believe that Jesus Christ has paid his debt and replaced his unrighteousness with righteousness. That is the good news. That is the gospel of God.