Commentary on Romans 1:18-32

Notes (NET Translation)

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,

The word “for” (gar) links verse 18 to the preceding verses. Paul “has been talking about the righteousness of God as it is seen and expressed through the gospel and related to through faith. Now he will go on to explain what God’s righteousness amounts to for those who have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, namely, God’s wrath.”1 It is “humanity’s sinfulness and consequent exposure to the wrath of God that made the revelation of God’s righteousness through the gospel necessary.”2

The wrath of God is a present, ongoing reality. It is revealed when God inflicts his wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. While God will inflict his wrath on the day of judgment (2:5, 8; 3:5; 9:22; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 5:9) he also inflicts his wrath in history by handing humans over to their sin and its consequences (1:24-28).

Paul further characterizes the people who are guilty of “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” as those who “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.” “Truth” in the NT is not simply something to which one must give mental assent; it is something to be done, to be obeyed. When people act sinfully, rebelling against God’s just rule, they fail to embrace the truth and so suppress it. In this case, as Meyer says, they “do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition.”3

The truth that people have unrighteously suppressed and rejected is that the one true God should be honored and worshiped and esteemed as God. We have seen that the righteousness of God is based on a desire to see his name honored. Paul uses the word “unrighteousness” (ἀδικία) twice in verse 18 to describe the sin of human beings. Human unrighteousness most fundamentally consists in a refusal to worship God and a desire to worship that which is in the created order. Unrighteousness involves the refusal to give God his proper sovereignty in one’s life. Since refusal to honor and glorify God is described in terms of ἀδικία, we have a clue here that both the saving and judging righteousness of God are rooted in a desire to see his name glorified. His wrath is inflicted upon the world because he is not prized, esteemed, and glorified.4

19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

Does gnoston (“what can be known about God”) refer to what is actually known about God or to what is knowable about God? Verses 21 (“they knew God”), 28 (“they did not see fit to acknowledge God”), and 32 (“they fully know God’s righteous decree”) indicate that Paul is saying that in some sense they actually know God.

The word translated ‘known’ is found only here in Paul’s writings but fourteen times elsewhere in the NT, and in every case it refers to something that is known or being made known, not something that may be known. This would support the translation of 1:19a as ‘what is known about God’. The reason why what is known about God ‘is plain to them’ is that God himself ‘has made it plain to them’. What the apostle means by this is spelled out in 1:20.5

20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.

God’s eternal power and divine nature/deity are known through observing the created world.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to “understand” something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19-20).6

This comports with what we know of Greco-Roman reflection on such matters. For example, Cicero argues that when one examines the heavens and earth one cannot but believe that some god or higher power is responsible for such a magnificent, intricately designed, and enormous structure (Tusculan Disputations 1.29.70). In fact, in the Greek philosophical tradition, natural theology goes back at least to Plato (Timaeus 28A-30C, 32A-35A) and was continued by his successors (e.g., Aristotle, De Mund. 6.397b-399b). This tradition of natural theology is found in early Jewish thinkers influenced by both their own tradition and the Greco-Roman tradition (e.g., Philo, Rewards and Punishments 43-46; Abraham 33.185; Josephus, Antiquities 1.154-56). So Paul stands in a long and time-honored line of those who have reflected about natural theology. But behind natural theology is, in the case of these Jewish writers, a theology of natural revelation. Paul believes, as Rom. 1.19 states, that there is only knowledge of God available through nature, because God has chosen to reveal himself in that fashion. He does not speak of humans ascending to or pursuing knowledge of God on their own.7

21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.

The failure of people to acknowledge God explains why they are without excuse (1:20). The following verses suggest the futility in thought refers to idolatry.

In the NT, “heart” is broad in its meaning, denoting “the thinking, feeling, willing ego of man, with particular regard to his responsibility to God.” We can understand, then, how Paul can describe the heart as being “without understanding” and recognize also how comprehensive is this description of fallen humanity. At the very center of every person, where the knowledge of God, if it is to have any positive effects, must be embraced, there has settled a darkness–a darkness that only the light of the gospel can penetrate.8

22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

In refusing to pay homage to God when his works are recognized, people claim to be acquiring wisdom. In reality, however, it is the opposite: they are “becoming foolish.” From v. 23, it is clear that this foolishness involves not only refusing to worship the true God but also embracing false gods.9

23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

The language of this verse echoes Ps 106:20; Jer 2:11.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves.

The word “therefore” indicates that God hands over humans in response to their rejection of him. There is both a divine and human side to this. People already had impure desires. Eph 4:19 says the Gentiles gave themselves up to sin.

But the meaning of “hand over” demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator of the process. God does not simply let the boat go–he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin.10

25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

“The truth of God” is not “the truth God has made known and belongs to him,” but the reality, the fact of God as he has revealed himself. The Thessalonian Christians, Paul writes, have reversed this exchange; they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).11

26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones,

Verses 26-27 make it clear that the “dishonorable passions” are illicit homosexual passions.

The extent to which Paul characterizes this exchange as a violation of God’s created order depends on the significance of the words “natural” and “nature” in this verse. Paul generally uses the word “nature” to describe the way things are by reason of their intrinsic state or birth, and in these cases there is no clear reference to divine intention. Some scholars in recent years especially, noting this, have argued that Paul does not here brand homosexuality as a violation of God’s will. He is only, they argue, following his own cultural prejudices by characterizing homosexual relations as being against what is “usually” the case. But Paul’s use of the word “nature” in this verse probably owes much to Jewish authors, particularly Philo, who included sexual morality as part of “natural law” and therefore as a divine mandate applicable to all people. Violations of this law, as in the case of Sodom, are therefore considered transgressions of God’s will. In keeping with the biblical and Jewish worldview, the heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God’s creative intent. Sexual sins that are “against nature” are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to “nature” in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order. Confirmation can be found in the context. In labeling the turning from “the natural use” to “that [use] which is against nature” an “exchange,” Paul associates homosexuality with the perversion of true knowledge of God already depicted in vv. 23 and 25. In addition, we must remember that the clause in question is a description of “sinful passions,” a phrase plainly connoting activities that are contrary to God’s will. When these factors are considered, it is clear that Paul depicts homosexual activity as a violation of God’s created order, another indication of the departure from true knowledge and worship of God.12

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman tradition there was a long history of seeing such behavior as “unnatural” or counter to the way God originally created and intended things to be (Plato, Laws 1.2; Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.758; Lev. 18.22; 20.13; Philo, Abraham 26.135; Special Laws 2.14.50; Josephus, Apion 2.25, 199; 2 Enoch 10.4). Paul certainly believes there is a natural order of things that God put into creation which ought to be followed.13

The early church fathers interpreted Paul’s statement in 1:26 that their ‘women [lit. ‘females’] exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones’ as female homosexual practice. For example, Ambrosiaster says: ‘Paul tells us that these things came about, that a woman should lust after another woman, because God was angry at the human race because of its idolatry’, and Chrysostom maintains: ‘But when God abandons a person to his own devices, then everything is turned upside down. Thus not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was too. . . . How disgraceful it is when even the women sought after these things, when they ought to have a greater sense of shame than men have’.14

27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Verse 27 gives no indication that only specific kinds of homosexual activity are prohibited. Instead, homosexual relations in general are indicted.15

In calling the homosexual activity that brings about this penalty an “error,” Paul does not diminish the seriousness of the offense, for this word often denotes sins of unbelievers in the NT. In claiming that this penalty for homosexual practice is received “in themselves,” Paul may suggest that the sexual perversion itself is the punishment. On the other hand, this could be a vivid way of saying that those who engage in such activities will suffer eternal punishment; they will receive “in their own persons” God’s penalty for violation of his will. This punishment, Paul says, was “necessary,” by which he probably means that God could not allow his created order to be so violated without there being a just punishment.16

Jewett, who recognizes that Paul condemns all forms of homosexual activity, suggests that the apostle included this in his letter to the Romans in order to encourage slaves who were being sexually exploited by their masters:

> While the Jewish background of Paul’s heterosexual preference has been frequently cited as decisive by previous researchers, little attention has been given to the correlation between homosexuality and slavery. The right of masters to demand sexual services from slaves and freedmen is an important factor in grasping the impact of Paul’s rhetoric, because slavery was so prominent a feature of the social background of most of Paul’s audience in Rome. . . . I suggest that Paul’s rhetoric may provide entrée into the similarly unhappy experience of Christian slaves and former slaves who had experienced and resented sexual exploitation, both for themselves and for their children, in a culture marked by aggressive bisexuality. . . . For those members of the Roman congregation still subject to sexual exploitation by slave owners or former slave owners who are now functioning as patrons, the moral condemnation of same-sex and extra-marital relations of all kinds would confirm the damnation of their exploiters and thus raise the status of the exploited above that of helpless victims with no prospect of retribution.17

28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.

Paul makes a play on words here. He says that since people did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, he gave them over into the tyranny of a mind that was not worthwhile/depraved, a mind that Cranfield describes as ‘so debilitated and corrupted as to be a quite untrustworthy guide in moral decisions’.18

People who have refused to acknowledge God end up with minds that are “disqualified” from being able to understand and acknowledge the will of God. The result, of course, is that they do things that are “not proper.” As in 1:21, Paul stresses that people who have turned from God are fundamentally unable to think and decide correctly about God and his will. This tragic incapacity is the explanation for the apparently inexplicable failure of people to comprehend, let alone practice, biblical ethical principles. Only the work of the Spirit in “renewing the mind [nous]” (Rom. 12:2) can overcome this deep-seated blindness and perversity.19

Paul describes what should not be done in verses 29-31.

29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips,

The Textus Receptus, following L Ψ 88 326 330 614 Byz Lect syrh arm al, contains porneia (“fornication”) after adikia (“unrighteousness”) and before ponēria (“wickedness”). The UBS4 believes the word was inserted into the text when ponēria was read as porneia. “The fact, however, that Paul argues (verses 24-25) that such vices as listed here issue from the licentious practices of idolatry, makes it unlikely that he would have included porneia within the list itself.”20

Some terms in this vice list are nearly synonymous and an overlap of meaning occurs between them.

30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents,

The sin of human self-exaltation before both God and other people is conveyed in the next three words, “proud [insolent],” “arrogant,” and “overbearing [boastful].” Trench distinguishes them, arguing that the first focuses on activities, the second on thoughts, and the third on words. Without making these distinctions absolute, they capture accurately enough the nuances of the words.21

Jewett notes that those who disobeyed their parents were ‘perceived by ancient Jews and Romans as profoundly dangerous. Deut 21:18-21 prescribed the death penalty for children who are disobedient to their mothers and fathers. While there are no indications that this law was enforced among Jews of the first century, there was frequent stress “on the honour and respect due to parents”. Roman law was even more severe, as Seneca the Elder reminded his audience of the ancient practice: “Remember, fathers expected absolute obedience from their children and could punish recalcitrant children even with death”. . . . Such authority was still an important factor in Roman family and political life in the first century’.22

31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless.

A “senseless” person describes a person who can no longer comprehend the will of God. Like the “fool” of Proverbs he pursues activities harmful to both himself and others.23

32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.

Paul speaks of what all people, Jews and Gentiles, can know of God’s judgment (cf. 2:14-15). People have some awareness that what they do is wrong and deserves to be punished by God. In this context the phrase “deserve to die” may refer to the final condemnation of the wicked.

[T]he person who commits evil, even though his or her actions are inexcusable, can at least plead the mitigating circumstances of the passion of the moment. Those who encourage others to practice evil do so from a settled and impassioned conviction. Cranfield says: “But there is also the fact that those who condone and applaud the vicious actions of others are actually making a deliberate contribution to the setting up of public opinion favourable to vice, and so to the corruption of an indefinite number of other people.” The full extent of the rejection of God becomes evident in such an attitude. His judgment is known, yet people are encouraged to pursue evil anyway. Those who encourage others to pursue evil commit a greater evil in that they foment the spread of evil and are complicit in the destruction of others. The hatred of God is so entrenched that people are willing to risk future judgment in order to carry out their evil desires. Once again the text hints that the fundamental sin that informs all others is a refusal to delight in or submit to God’s lordship. God’s wrath is rightly inflicted on those who not only practice evil but find their greatest delight in it.24

Comment

Is This Passage Describing Jews or Gentiles?

Verse 18 may serve as the theme for all of 1:18-3:20, but we can still ask whether 1:19-32 is primarily describing Jews or Gentiles.

Traditionally it has been assumed the passage depicts Gentiles, but there are some reasons put forth to reject or qualify this assumption:

  1. The object of God’s wrath are called “people” (anthropon) instead of “Gentiles” (ethne).
  2. Verse 23 alludes to both Ps 106:20 and Jer 2:11, which describe the idolatry of Israel.
  3. The turning to idolatry is described in language reminiscent of OT descriptions of the fall, suggesting all humanity is in view, and the golden calf incident, suggesting Jews are included.
  4. Some commentators think the transition from 1:32 to 2:1 is smoother if the people indicted in 2:1-4, who are not confined to Gentiles, were already included in 1:19-32.

However, these reasons are not persuasive:

  1. The passage is typical of the Jewish view of Gentile sin: creation points to the Creator (Rom 1:20; Wis 13:1, 5, 8) but foolish thought leads to idolatry (Rom 1:21-22; Wis 12:24; 13:1), the worship of idols (Rom 1:23, 25; Wis 13:10-14, 17; 14:8, 11-12, 21), sexual immorality (Rom 1:24, 26-27; Wis 14:12, 22-24), and wickedness (Rom 1:29-31; Wis 14:25-27).
  2. Ps 106:20 and Jer 2:11 are now applied to the Gentiles.
  3. The knowledge of God rejected by those depicted in 1:19-32 comes from natural revelation, whereas the knowledge of God comes to the Jew through special revelation (Rom 2:12-13, 17-29).
  4. The overt form of idolatry depicted was practically unknown among the Jews of Paul’s day but was normal among the Gentiles.
  5. Jews consistently frowned upon homosexuality whereas homosexual relations were not uncommon in the pagan world.
  6. Jews condemned sin instead of approving it (1:32).

The strategy of Paul’s argument is comparable to what we find in Amos 1-2. Paul attacked the Gentiles first, and while the Jews are saying “amen” he shockingly indicts them as well. The allusions to the idolatry of the Jews in Rom. 1:23 can be understood as foreshadowing chapter 2. In other words, 1:19-32 is directed against the Gentiles, but upon reading chapter 2 a Jew would begin to understand that they were not exempt from the charges pressed in chapter 1.25

The argument of 1:18-2:29 is best viewed as a series of concentric circles, proceeding from the general to the particular. Verse 18, the outermost circle, begins with a universal indictment: all people stand condemned under the wrath of God. It is the “heading” of 1:18-3:20 as a whole. Romans 1:19-32, likewise, includes in its scope all people, but it looks at them from the standpoint of their responsibility to God apart from special revelation. This qualification, even though not removing Jews in principle from the focus, means that Paul is not speaking directly about them. He is still speaking to them, however, since he uses this section to set up the indictment of the Jews that follows. The focus in 2:1-11 becomes more specific as Paul indicts the “moral person,” but implicitly, as we will see, the Jew. Romans 2:17-29 finally targets Jews explicitly, accusing them on the basis of the clearest revelation of God available: the law of Moses.26

Natural Revelation

Natural revelation concerns what creation reveals about God. Special revelation concerns what God reveals about himself through his direct actions and words.

True knowledge of God can be learned from observing nature apart from God’s special revelation (vv 19-21). Verse 18 says that people are suppressing the truth. For the argument in verses 19-28 to work, the people who suppress the truth must be the same people who have access to knowledge of God. Therefore, this passage is not speaking of a collective fall of humanity into idolatry in the past; it is speaking of an ongoing process in the present. However, this knowledge of God is limited to the basic attributes of God (v 20). Some knowledge of God stays with a person even after the person has fallen into a degenerate state (v 32).

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Witherington III 2004, 64 
  2. Kruse 2012, 86 
  3. Moo 1996, 102-103 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2092-2098 
  5. Kruse 2012, 89-90 
  6. Moo 1996, 105 
  7. Witherington III 2004, 66 
  8. Moo 1996, 107 
  9. Moo 1996, 108 
  10. Moo 1996, 111 
  11. Moo 1996, 112-113 
  12. Moo 1996, 114-115 
  13. Witherington III, 69 
  14. Kruse 2012, 102 
  15. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2214-2215 
  16. Moo 1996, 116-117 
  17. Kruse 2012, 104-105 
  18. Kruse 2012, 105 
  19. Moo 1996, 118 
  20. Metzger 2005, 447 
  21. Moo 1996, 120 
  22. Kruse 2012, 106-107 
  23. Moo 1996, 120-121 
  24. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2309-2317 
  25. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 1973-1976 
  26. Moo 1996, 96-97 
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