Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome is one of the most dense, tightly argued, theological statements of all time. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to sum up this epistle in a few brief blog posts. What I propose to do instead is offer a few excerpts from a recent sermon series I gave on this Pauline letter. The first excerpt deals with one of the most misunderstood yet oft-quoted passages in this letter, from Romans 1. If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click on the link at the end of this post….
How is God’s wrath revealed? God’s wrath is not just something that is going to be revealed in the final judgment. Paul tells us that God’s wrath is being revealed now in God giving people over. God’s wrath is revealed in God letting people run with their sin. God’s wrath is actually revealed in a good thing: free will. God gives us freedom of choice. We can choose to follow God or not. And if we reject God, God is not going to interfere with our freedom.
God’s wrath is revealed in the downward spiral of the human crisis. People start out knowing God and God’s truth, but then they reject that truth and try to replace God with idols. Having rejected the truth about God, God gives humanity over to the things that humanity chooses: sexual impurity, shameful lusts, a depraved mind, and all sorts of antisocial behavior.
The downward spiral into ever-increasing sin that Paul saw happening in his day is not much different today, is it? Human beings, having given up worship of God, end up worshipping creation instead. This downward spiral ends up with human beings turning completely inward and worshipping themselves.
However, at this point I must state one caveat. I believe that the type of homosexual behavior that Paul was seeing in his day, and which he condemns, is not, in many cases, precisely what we are seeing in our own day.
The question is: what would Paul have known of same-sex relations in his day? He seems to be talking here about people who were naturally heterosexual going after homosexual relationships just for the heck of it. Paul would have known about older men having same-sex relationships with teenage boys. It is doubtful that Paul would have known much of anything about same-sex relationships between women, and it seems unlikely Paul knew anything about a same-sex relationship between two consenting adults committed to loving each other for life.
Arland Hultgren concludes, “…when Paul speaks of same-gender sexual activity, he is speaking of prominent, common, and visible behaviors in the Greco-Roman world that were practiced by Gentiles of pagan background…and that were exploitive.”
One of the most helpful things I have heard on this topic comes from Dr. Lewis Smedes who, for many years, taught psychology at the conservative, evangelical, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Smedes once said,
The people Paul had in mind refused to acknowledge and worship God, and for this reason were abandoned by God. And being abandoned by God, they sank into sexual depravity.
The homosexuals I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and they thank God for his grace and his gifts. How, then, could they have been abandoned to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God?
Nor have the homosexuals that I know given up heterosexual passions for homosexual lusts. They have been homosexual from the moment of their earliest sexual stirrings. They did not change from one orientation to another; they just discovered that they were homosexual. It would be unnatural for most homosexuals to have heterosexual sex.
And the homosexual people I know do not lust after each other any more than heterosexual people do… their love for one another is likely to be just as spiritual and personal as any heterosexual love can be.
It is also important to remember what Paul says at the beginning of Romans 2:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
Even after describing what were, to most Jews, the disturbing sexual practices of the ancient Greek world, Paul warns us that judging others is God’s business not ours.
To listen to the rest of this sermon, click here: Romans 1:18-32.