(a) The heathen world in general.
For this cause God gave them up ( παρέδωκε , as before) to vile affections ( πάθη ἀτιμίας , i.e. "passions of infamy;" cf. above, τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι ). For the use, on the other hand, of the words τιμὴ and τίμιος to denote seemly and honourable indulgence of the sexual affections, cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:4 ( τὸ ἐαυτοῦ σκεῦος κτᾶσθαι ἐν ἁγιασμῶ καὶ τιμῆ ) and Hebrews 13:4 ( τίμιος ὁ γάμος ἐν πᾶσι καὶ ἡ κοίτη ἀμίαντος ). For their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature.
A more frightful exhibition of sin and its consequences than that given by the apostle in the latter part of this chapter could not have been presented; yet to have said less than this would have been to fall short of the facts of the case, which needed to be stated in order to prepare the way for the publication of a gospel of pardon and of purity.
I. THE ROOT OF EVIL PASSION , OR LUST , IS IN THE WORSHIP OF THE CREATURE . The beginning of all evil is in departure from God. His works, and especially the most honourable and beautiful of all his material constructions—the human body—are intended to lead the thoughts and aspirations of men to the great Creator himself, whose attributes they in some measure display. The symmetry and grace and beauty of the human form and features are the crown of the physical creation. And to the Christian the body of man has this higher interest—it was tenanted by the human mind, it was possessed by the Divine nature, of the Son of God himself. The attractiveness of the body is not only a fact indicative of the Divine delight in form; within lawful bounds it is intended to subserve the high purposes of social and especially of conjugal life. But when the interest centres upon what is corporeal, and does not pass beyond and above it, then the Divine intention is frustrated. Evidently the nobility, the enchanting loveliness characteristic of the human body in its grandest and fairest types, are designed to suggest the infinite and eternal spiritual excellence.
"Thus beauty here points up to that above,
And loveliness leads on to perfect love."
But when this great and precious lesson is missed, what follows? Inevitable degradation. The creature is worshipped, and the Creator is forgotten or despised. The mind and heart seek to rest in what can never satisfy them. The emblem is mistaken for the reality, the shadow for the substance.
II. THE FRUIT OF EVIL PASSION , OR LUST , IS UNNATURAL AND DEBASING VICE . Readers of the ancient literature of Greece and Rome, students of anthropology, travellers and residents in heathen lands in our own time, are well aware of the lengths to which sinful passion can lead those whom it masters. There is no need to go into detail, and it is better for Christian people to remain ignorant of corruptions with which, happily, they are never brought into contact. But it remains true that, with idolatry, the filthiest rites and orgies have often been, and still are, associated. Those abandoned to "fleshly lusts" appear to exhaust their ingenuity in inventing forms of unlawful indulgence.
III. THE PUNISHMENT OF EVIL PASSION , OR LUST , IS ASSURED BY THE RETRIBUTIVE ACTION OF GOD 'S RIGHTEOUS GOVERNMENT . There is a natural belief in retribution. Nemesis is no mere invention of the human imagination; it springs from convictions and fears from which humanity can never free itself. Revelation confirms the natural utterances of human reason, assuring us that after death is the judgment, and that every man shall give account of himself to God, when evil deeds shall not go unpunished. The laws of nature to a large extent ensure some measure of retribution even here and now. Tribes and nations which have practised debasing and unnatural vices have paid the penalty in national deterioration, and individual sinners have reaped the bitter fruit proper to evil seed. And there is every reason to believe that the righteous judgment of God is not confined to this present earthly state.
IV. THE REMEDY OF EVIL PASSION , OR LUST , IS PROVIDED IN THE GOSPEL OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST . It is the purpose of the apostle, in this Epistle to the Romans, to show that the mercy of God our Father has abounded to sinful men, in the provision of
The inexcusableness of the heathen.
In the twentieth verse the apostle speaks of the heathen as "without excuse." These words describe the condition of those who have wilfully rejected light. They do not, indeed, describe their condition from their own standpoint or from the standpoint of men generally. From their own standpoint men are seldom "without excuse." No matter how gross or glaring the offence is, the offender has usually some excuse to offer. Adam and Eve had their excuses ready when the Lord God said, "What is this that thou hast done?" Saul had his excuse ready when he returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites without having fully carried out the commandment of the Lord, when Samuel asked him, "What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and this lowing of the oxen which I hear?" It might be taken as on the whole a fair description of the human race to say, "They all with one consent began to make excuse." However slow we are to excuse others, we are always remarkably ready to excuse ourselves. But these words describe the condition of these who reject light from the standpoint of him who is the great Searcher of hearts. He makes no mistakes. He makes no uncharitable judgments. In his sight those to whom he has given light, and who have chosen to reject it, are "without excuse." They are inexcusable. They have no valid reason for their ignorance about the way of salvation and the path of duty if God has given them light about both. This is the condition described by Christ in that parable where he represents the king as coming to one of the guests at the marriage-feast, and saying to him, "Friend, how camest thou in hither, not having on a wedding-garment?" And the Saviour tells us, "And he was speechless." He knew that he was without excuse. He knew the laws of the feast; he knew that the wedding-garment was provided, and he neglected to put it on. So shall it be in the great day, of judgment with all those who had the opportunity to know God's will, but who neglected to do it. May we be enabled, in considering the inexcusableness of the heathen, to think of this solemn subject with reverence and with fairness.
I. LIGHT GRANTED . If God expects men to know him, we may be sure that he has given them the means of knowing him. God will judge every man according to the opportunities he has had. Paul's statement is definite and clear. They are without excuse, he says, "because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful" ( Romans 1:21 ). They knew God, says the apostle. How, then, did they know him? And what did they know about him? They knew him by means of his works, and they knew at least two things about his character—that he was a Being of power, and that his power was more than human. It is inferred also that they knew themselves to be dependent upon his bountiful providence and care, else they could not have been accused of being ungrateful. "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" ( Romans 1:19 , Romans 1:20 ). Here, then, it is clearly taught that it is possible to obtain a knowledge of God from his works, and that such knowledge the ancient heathen had. St. Paul knew very well what he was talking about when he said that the ancient heathen had a knowledge of God. He was well acquainted with the literature of ancient Greece. On Mars' Hill we find him quoting to the philosophers of Athens a statement from Aratus, one of their own poets. "As certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." The light of nature— this is the light which was granted to the ancient heathen. Two things that light of nature taught them about God—his power and his Godhead. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork." Behind the stars and the sea, there must be some power that made and controls them all. The order of the seasons, the succession of day and night, the ebb and flow of the tides—all these things require a controlling force, and that force must not only have almighty power, but must have intelligence and reason and will. Such a being must be a Person. Such a Person is more than human—is Divine. The same light of nature is granted to us all. But how much more light has been granted to us! We have the light of God's written Word. What mysteries that Word opens up to us, concerning which the voice of nature is silent! What a light it gives us about the mercy of God, and the Saviour's redeeming love! What a light it gives us about immortality and heaven, after which the best of the ancient heathen were groping and searching in darkness! How thankful we should be, amid the darkness which sorrow brings, and as we look forward to the darkness of the grave, for the light which God in his Word has mercifully granted to us! But that great privilege, that unspeakable blessing, brings with it a solemn responsibility. We who have the Bible in our hands are without excuse if we live in godlessness or unbelief, if we reject the offer of salvation.
II. LIGHT REJECTED . "They are without excuse, because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful" ( Romans 1:20 , Romans 1:21 ). And then, further on, the apostle says, "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge" ( Romans 1:28 ). How often have nations acted thus— rejecting the light which was their best possession, their safety and their shield! The Jewish nation rejected the heavenly light, notwithstanding God's repeated warnings as to the consequences of doing so. France rejected the light when it expelled the Huguenots, the God-fearing portion of its population. Spain did the same when, by its Inquisition and its autos-da-fe, it exterminated all who dared to prefer the pure light of the Divine Word to the darkness and superstitions of Rome. Such nations were plainly without excuse, for they had the light, and deliberately rejected and quenched it when they could. So also we find rulers rejecting the light. That was the case with King Saul. He rejected the commandment of the Lord, and God rejected him from being king over Israel. Belshazzar, King of Babylon, had plenty of light given him in the career of Nebuchadnezzar his father about the power and justice of God. But, as Daniel reminded him, he had disregarded the solemn lesson; though he knew all this, he had not humbled himself, but had lifted himself up against the Lord of heaven ( Daniel 5:21 , Daniel 5:22 ). And so on that night of revelry the fingers of a man's hand came forth and wrote upon the wall, "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting," He was without excuse. He had rejected the light which God had given him. Do we not see a similar infatuation in the case of the unhappy Mary Queen of Scots? Though she had faithful men of God in her capital and often heard the truth from the lips of John Knox, she chose rather to be guided by her own caprices and by the influence of her frivolous courtiers. She, too, rejected the light which God had placed within her reach. We are not to think that it makes no difference whether we accept the Divine light or not. There is a danger that we may become too liberal as to the attitude men take up regarding God's Holy Word. It is well to be broad—broad as the mercy and the love of God. But, on the other hand, we may be broader and more indulgent towards error than God's Word permits of. God deals with men as intelligent and rational and moral beings, with a free will, capable of free choice. He puts before them life and death. He tells them that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." He tells them that there is no other way of salvation except through Jesus Christ alone. Upon them rests the responsibility and the guilt if they reject his salvation. It is worse than a matter of indifference; it is a sin in the sight of God, it is a sin against their own soul's destiny, for men to reject or neglect the message which the great Creator has mercifully sent them. It may be done in the name of science. It may be done in the name of advanced thought. But it is moral guilt nevertheless. "They are without excuse."
III. WRATH REVEALED . "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (verse 18). And how could it be otherwise? If light has been granted to beings of intelligence and reason and conscience, and they have deliberately chosen to reject it, is it not fair and just that they should take the consequences? It is in the very nature of things that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." A man cannot violate a natural law with impunity. The most liberal-minded scientific man will see no unfairness in a man suffering if he disregards or violates the well-known laws of nature. Fire will burn, water will drown, pitch will defile, bad air will poison. If a man acts in defiance of these natural and elementary laws, he suffers the consequence. No one sees any unfairness in it. Why should there be any more unfairness in suffering as the result of disregarding and defying moral laws? On the contrary, is it not of more importance that a moral law should be vindicated, that men should learn to obey a moral law, than that even a natural law should be vindicated? But here, at any rate, is the fact, written clearly in God's Word, written over and over again on the page of history —light rejected means wrath revealed. Was it not so with ancient Israel? Has it not been so with France and Spain? Was it not so with Saul and Belshazzar? It is a terrible thing ,when men so harden themselves against God's Word. so shut their eyes against the light of his commandments, yes, even against the light of the cross, that God says, "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone." Let him alone! Light granted. Light rejected. Wrath revealed. "Without excuse." Such is St. Paul's description of the ancient heathen world. To a world in such a state Jesus came. He came to reveal the righteousness of God in contrast to the abominable deities of heathenism. He came also to reveal the mercy of God. The trumpet-note of judgment is loud and terrible. But the trumpet-note of mercy is equally loud. "There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."—C.H.I.
The revelation of wrath.
"For." Note the transition. The introduction into a status of righteousness presupposes a status of unrighteousness, involving wrath. So, then, we have here—man's guilt, God's wrath.
I. MAN 'S GUILT . Man's guilt, which is his obnoxious relation to the judgment of God, is established by reference to the well-known state of the Gentile world, branded by its own doings as "ungodly" and "unrighteous."
1. Ungodliness. The deepest root of man's corruption.
2. Unrighteousness. Cause and effect of ungodliness. Catalogued here so terribly that merely to read it is enough.
II. GOD 'S WRATH . This truth is burnt into the Bible, from first to last, that God is angry with sin, and with the sinner who identifies himself with sin. But it is burnt into the very history of sin itself, and that is the insistence of the apostle here.
1. Sin working folly. ( Romans 1:21 , Romans 1:22 .) Man will not bow to what is above him; he therefore bows to what is beneath him. An effigy (Greece)! an eel (Egypt)! And this with all their wisdom: Greece, Rome, Egypt ( Romans 1:22 ).
2. Sin working shame. ( Romans 1:24 , Romans 1:26 , Romans 1:27 .) Man realizes his dignity when he realizes his God; loosing himself from God, he sinks into a degradation degraded beyond all words.
3. Sin working sin. ( Romans 1:28-32 .) An utter reprobacy, so that the man becomes a devil! This the ultimate result of confirmed apostasy from God. Short of this, there is hope. What laws are these! Yes; God's laws. The revelation of his wrath. The heavens are speaking daily while we sin, and this is their voice: "Deeper, deeper, deeper! Folly, shame, sin!" And the thrice-told truth of it all ( Romans 1:24 , Romans 1:26 , Romans 1:28 ) is, God gave them up." And all because they gave up God. So the ultimate punishment of the ultimate sin is, They reprobated God; God reprobated them" ( Romans 1:28 , literally). Let us learn, from these sad words, our danger: the suppression of the truth which is in us, its conversion into a lie—for all this is possible still; and the consequent wrath of God. And our safety: for as it is the loosing of ourselves from God which works folly, shame, and death; so it is the laying hold of God by faith in Christ that works wisdom, dignity, and life.—T.F.L.
God's wrath as revealed among the Gentiles.
In last homily we saw that the gospel Paul meant to preach at Rome, if he ever got there, was a "revelation of justice" on the part of God. By his covenant arrangements "God can be just, and yet the Justifier of him who believeth in Jesus." He can proclaim the sinner just on the ground of Christ's atonement. But now we are introduced to another "revelation" made in the constitution of the world—a revelation which is also grounded on justice, hut its manifestation is "wrath." The present section deals with this wrath as manifested among the Gentiles, while the subsequent chapter deals with it as manifested among the Jews. As we have seen that the heathen element constituted the major part of the Church at Rome, and that the Epistle was likely to touch at its very centre the heathenism of the world, we can understand Paul's purpose in placing the discussion of the condition of the heathen in the foreground.
I. THE STATE OF HEATHEN RELIGION AS LAID BEFORE US HERE BY PAUL . ( Romans 1:21-23 .) In these verses the apostle sketches in a very masterly manner the religious situation of heathendom. And here we remark:
1. The heathen deities are degradations. In some cases they are "corruptible men," as the polytheism of Greece and of Rome was the worship of man, and the apotheosis of his evil propensities. The inhabitants of Olympus and of the Pantheon were a "free-and-easy lot." In other cases, as in Egypt and the East, they worshipped animals of all sorts,—"birds, four-footed beasts, and creeping things."
2. Every heathen religion has its rationale. The devotees imagined that they had the best of reasons for their worship. They professed to be wise in the arrangement, and would have repudiated all charge of folly. The lowest forms of fetichism can give some account of itself, and thinks that it rests on reason.
II. THE STATE OF MORALS IS DEGRADED IN PROPORTION TO THE DEGRADATION OF RELIGION . ( Romans 1:24-31 .) It is a natural transition from the deification of human or animal passions to the practice of the most frightful immoralities. Hence in connection with these degraded religions we find:
1. Licentiousness made religious. Courtesans thronged the temples of Venus as her priestesses, just as the "nautch-girls" in India have their recognized connection with the Hindoo temples. The moment man begins to worship the man of genius and of passion, or begins to worship the lower creation, as if endowed with independent attributes, by a natural law he becomes lowered in the scale of being. "They that make them [ i.e . 'idols'] are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them" ( Psalms 115:8 ). They dishonour themselves through licentiousness after having dishonoured God by their ideas about divinities.
2. Sin tends still further to become unnatural. ( Romans 1:26 , Romans 1:27 .) In one respect, indeed, all sin is unnatural; £ its ultimate issue is against nature. It becomes a mystery how minds get infatuated with it ( Jeremiah 2:12 , Jeremiah 2:13 ). But what Paul brings out here is the outrageous lengths to which unrestrained licentiousness will go. When the sinner takes rope enough, he goes, as the apostle here shows, to the most debasing and disgusting lengths, being worse in this matter of lust than the beasts that perish.
3. Sinners tend still further to be reprobate and reckless. ( Romans 1:28-31 .) The point of the Greek is very beautiful in Romans 1:28 . It might be rendered thus: "And even as they reprobated ( οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν ) the idea of having God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate ( ἀδόκιμον ) mind," etc. The judicial element in the reprobate condition is strictly retributive. Since they will have nothing to do with God even in idea, he must return their indignity and permit them to pass into the reprobate condition, i.e. the condition which he cannot approve of, but must loathe with his whole soul. The terrible catalogue need not be taken up in detail. It is headed by the generic term "unrighteousness" ( ἀδικία ), indicating that the spirit of injustice pervades the whole. Society is going morally to pieces. And there can be no doubt about the truth of the dark picture in Greece, in Rome, and in other heathen lands. But then the sinners become reckless as well as reprobate. Even with the fate of others staring them in the face, they continue their desperate game, and despise the consequences. £
III. IN THIS DEGRADATION WE MAY RECOGNIZE A REVELATION OF DIVINE WRATH . This is the point of the passage. God is angry with the heathen who so degrade him in their thoughts, and all their inconvenient sin is his judgment against them. Paul does not assert the sufficiency or finality of present judgment, but simply asks us to recognize it as clearly from God. It comes about according to natural law, but it is not on that account any the less the sentence of the Lord who ordereth all. Sinners go from bad to worse. They are punished through their sins; these sins are not self-reformatory, £ but manifestly judicial. It is a vast subject, that of the Divine wrath; we do not understand it in its vast proportions doubtless; we may well exclaim with Moses, "Who knoweth the power of thine anger?" yet of its reality no impartial observer of man's sins and their consequences can be in doubt. £
IV. THE HEATHEN DESERVE TO SUFFER THROUGH THEIR SINS BECAUSE OF THEIR MISUSE OF THE LIGHT OF NATURE . ( Romans 1:18-20 .) Now, what does Paul mean by saying they are inexcusable? Not certainly that "the light of nature" is sufficient for salvation, if properly used. But simply that with "the light of nature" they have no excuse for such a degradation of God, and deserve to suffer for it. What, then, does nature teach us regarding God? Now, if you observe the accuracy of the apostle's position, you will find him dividing this revelation about God into two parts—the revelation in our own human nature ( Romans 1:19 ), and the revelation in the natural world without ( Romans 1:20 ). And he maintains that God has been speaking to us by both. Now, when I look within and analyze myself, I am conscious of the light of intelligence and of conscience. Human nature is certain of possessing these, if there is such a thing as certainty at all. When, then, human nature begins the study of nature, it expects to find in nature the expression of thoughts like its own. As it has been very accurately said, "God utters his mind in his works, and that mind is like our own. In fact, science would be impossible if it were not so. Science is the observation and interpretation of nature by man. Clearly the world's Maker and the world's observer must have something in common, if the observer is to understand the Maker's meaning. A world put together by a Being utterly unlike me, whose notions of truth, of utility, of purpose, of beauty, bore no manner of relation to mine at all, would be a world I could never understand, and could take no pleasure whatever in examining. It would be a chaos where I should fail to trace either method or meaning. But the real world we know, search it at what point you please, answers the intellectual demands of its human student; it satisfies the reason and it gratifies the taste of its human observer. In it a man detects with joy another mind at work similar in its great features to his own; and this is at bottom, I expect, the secret of its fascination." £ Let us, then, take up nature in this way, and we shall find it conveying to us clear evidence of God's "eternal power and Divinity." The world without and within witnesses to his power; it is an effect, and he is the first and eternal Cause. We also attribute to him those qualities by virtue of which he has become Creator of such a world; we grasp the idea of his Divinity (cf. Godet, in loc. ). In degenerating into their polytheisms, therefore, the heathen were misusing ': the light of nature." Their degradation was quite inexcusable. They deserved the wrath to which God subjected them.
V. WE OUGHT TO CONSIDER OUR GREATER RESPONSIBILITY UNDER THE LIGHT OF OUR GREATER REVELATION . God has added to the light of nature. He has given us the Bible. Our conceptions of God should be correspondingly elevated. But oh! if, notwithstanding all this light, we degrade God in our thoughts and descend to real idolatry, the idolatry of money, of ambition, of success, our judgment must be intensified in comparison with that of the pagans. In particular, let us remember how God has assumed human form in the Person of Jesus Christ, and so enabled us to know him through the mild radiance of a perfect life. Let such a revelation have its full effect upon us, leading us to love God and worship him and serve him with our whole hearts. Jesus becomes the great Iconoclast, and before him every Dagon falls.—R.M.E.