WHEN GOD GAVE MAN UP TO HIS OWN WAY: Thoughts from Romans 1

DarknessRevealed-archive

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. –Romans 1:24

There is a dark sequence, in the logic of facts, between unworthy thoughts of God and the development of the basest forms of human wrong.

“The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God:’” they are corrupt, and have done abominable works” (Psalm 14:1). And the folly which does not indeed deny God but degrades His Idea, always gives its sure contribution to such corruption.

It is so in the nature of the case. The individual atheist, or polytheist, may conceivably be a virtuous person, on the human standard; but if he is so it is not because of his creed. Let his creed become a real formative power in human society, and it will tend inevitably to moral disease and death. Is man indeed a moral personality, made in the image of a holy and almighty Maker? Then the vital air of his moral life must be fidelity, correspondence, to his God. Let man think of Him as less than All, and he will think of himself less worthily; not less proudly perhaps, but less worthily, because not in his true and wonderful relation to the Eternal Good. Wrong in himself will tend surely to seem less awful, and right less necessary and great.

And nothing, literally nothing, from any region higher than himself –himself already lowered in his own thought from his true idea –can ever come in to supply the blank where God should be, but is not. Man may worship himself, or may despise himself, when he has ceased to “glorify God and thank Him”; but he cannot for one hour be what he was made to be, the son of God in the universe of God. To know God indeed is to be secured from self-worship and to be taught reverence.

“God gave them up”

So the Scripture says elsewhere. “So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lusts” (Psalm 81:12); “God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven” (Acts 7:42); “God gave them up to passions of degradation”; “God gave them over to an abandoned mind”; (below, verses 26, 28). It is a dire thought; but the inmost conscience, once awake, affirms the righteousness of the thing. From one point of view it is just the working out of a natural process, in which sin is at once exposed and punished by its proper results, without the slightest injection, so to speak, of any force beyond its own terrible gravitation towards the sinner’s misery.

But from another point it is the personally allotted, and personally inflicted, retribution of Him who hates iniquity with the antagonism of infinite Personality. He has so constituted natural process that wrong gravitates to wretchedness; and He is in that process, and above it, always and forever.

So He “gave them up, in their desires of their hearts”; He left them there where they had placed themselves, “in” the fatal region of self-will, self-indulgence; “unto uncleanness” described now with terrible explicitness in its full outcome, “to dishonor their bodies” the intended temples of the Creator’s presence, “among themselves” or “in themselves”; for the possible dishonor might be done either in a foul solitude, or in a fouler society and mutuality: Seeing that they perverted the truth of God. The eternal fact of His glory and claim, in the (τῷ) lie, so that it was travestied, misrepresented, lost, “in” the falsehood of polytheism and idols; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

He casts this strong Doxology into the thick air of false worship and foul life, as if to clear it with its holy reverberation. For he is writing no mere discussion, it is not a lecture on the genesis and evolution of paganism. It is the story of a vast rebellion, told by one who, was once himself a rebel, is now altogether and forever the absolute vassal of the King whom he has “seen in His beauty,” and whom it is his joy to bless, and to claim blessing for Him from His whole world forever.

As if animated by the word of benediction, he returns to denounce “the abominable thing which God hateth” with language that is still more terrible in its explicitness.

For this reason, because of their preference of the worse to the infinite Good, God gave them up to passions of degradation; He handed them over, self-bound, to the helpless slavery of lust; to “passions” eloquent word, which indicates how the man who will have his own way is all the while a “sufferer,” though by his own fault; the victim of a mastery which he has conjured from the deep of sin.

Shall we shun to read, to render, the words which follow? We will not comment and expound. May the presence of God in our hearts, hearts otherwise as vulnerable as those of the old pagan sinners, sweep from the springs of thought and will all horrible curiosity. But if it does so it will leave us the more able, in humility, in tears, in fear, to hear the facts of this stern indictment. It will bid us listen as those who are not sitting in judgment on paganism, but standing beside the accused and sentenced, to confess that we too share the fall, and stand, if we stand, by grace alone.

Shall we consider if the Apostle, who thus tore the rags from the spots of the Black Death of ancient morals, would be more merciful, if possible, over similar symptoms parading today in modern Christianity?

Terrible, indeed, is the prosaic coolness with which vices are named and narrated in classical literature; and we ask in vain for one of even the noblest of the pagan moralists who has spoken of such sins with anything like adequate horror. Such “speech, and such silence, has been almost impossible since the Gospel was felt in civilization.” “Paganism,” says Dr. F.W. Farrar, in a powerful passage, with this paragraph of Romans in his view, “is protected from complete exposure by the enormity of its own vices. To shew the divine reformation wrought by Christianity it must suffice that once for all the Apostle of the Gentiles seized heathenism by the hair, and branded indelibly on her forehead the stigma of her shame.”

Yet the vices of the old time are not altogether an antiquarian’s wonder. Now, as truly as then, man is awfully accessible to the worst solicitations the moment he trusts himself away from God. And this needs indeed to be remembered in a stage of thought and of society whose sensuality, cynicism, and materialism, show gloomy signs of likeness to those last days of the old degenerate world in which St Paul looked round him, and spoke out about the things he saw.

For their females perverted the natural use to the unnatural. So too the males, leaving the natural use of the female, burst out aflame in their craving towards one another, males in males working out their unseemliness –and duly getting (ἀπολαμβάνοντες) in themselves that recompense of their error which was owed them. –Verse 27

And as they did not approve of keeping God in their moral knowledge, God gave them up to an ‘abandoned mind,’ — “a reprobate, God-rejected, mind” (ἀδόκιμον νοῦν); meeting their disapprobation with His just and fatal reprobation. That mind, taking the false premises of the Tempter, and reasoning from them to establish the autocracy of self, led with terrible certainty and success through evil thinking to evil doing; to do the deeds which are not becoming, to expose the being made for God, in a naked and foul unseemliness, to its friends and its foes; filled full of all unrighteousness, wickedness, viciousness, greed; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who (οἵτινες) knowing the (ἐπιγνόντες) judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

Here is a terrible accusation of human life, and of the human heart; the more terrible because it is plainly meant to be, in a certain sense, both inclusive, and universal.’

We are not indeed compelled to think that the Apostle charges every human being with sins against nature, as if the whole earth were actually one vast City of the Plain. We need not take him to mean that every descendant of Adam is actually an undutiful child, or actually untrustworthy in a compact, or even actually a boaster, an ἀλαζόνας, a pretentious claimant of praise or credit which he knows he does not deserve. We may be sure that on the whole, in this lurid passage, man charged less with condemnation than with “lamentation, and mourning, and woe,” Paul is thinking mainly of the then state of heathen society in its worst developments. Yet we shall see, as the Epistle goes on, that all the while he is thinking not only of the sins of some men, but of the sin of man. He describes with this tremendous particularity the variegated symptoms of one disease –the corruption of man’s heart; a disease everywhere present, everywhere deadly; limited in its manifestations by many circumstances and conditions, outward or within the man, but in itself quite unlimited in its dreadful possibilities. What man is, as fallen, corrupted, gone from God, is shewn, in the teaching of St Paul, by what bad men are.

Do we rebel against the inference? Quite possibly we do. Almost for certain, at one time or another, we have done so. We look round us on one estimable life and another, which we cannot reasonably think of as regenerate, if we take the strict Scriptural tests of regeneration into account, yet which asks and wins our respect, our confidence, it may be even our admiration; and we say, openly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously, that that life stands clear outside this first chapter of Romans. Well, be it so in our thoughts; and let nothing, no nothing, make us otherwise than ready to recognize and honor right doing wherever we see it, alike in the saints of God and in those who deny His very Being. But just now let us withdraw from all such looks outward, and calmly and in a silent hour look in. Do we, do you, do I, stand outside this chapter? Are we definitely prepared to say that the heart which we carry in our breast, whatever our friend’s heart may be, is such that under no change of circumstances could it, being what it is, conceivably develop the forms of evil branded in this passage?

Ah, who, that knows himself, does not know that there lies in him indefinitely more than he can know of possible evil? “Who can understand his errors?” Who has so encountered temptation in all its typical forms that he can say, with even approximate truth, that he knows his own strength, and his own weakness, exactly as they are?

Nor was it lightly, or as a piece of pious rhetoric, that the saintliest of the chiefs of our Reformation, seeing a murderer carried off to die, exclaimed that there went John Bradford but for the grace of God. It is just when a man is nearest God for himself that he sees what, but for God, he would be; what, taken apart from God, he is, potentially if not in actuality. And it is in just such a mood that, reading this paragraph of the great Epistle, he will smite upon his breast, and say, “God, be merciful to me the sinner” (Luke 18:13).

In so doing, the repentant sinner will be meeting the very purpose of the Writer of this passage. Inasmuch as St Paul is full of the message of peace, holiness, and the Spirit, he is intent and eager to bring his reader into sight and possession of the fullness of the eternal mercy, revealed and secured in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Sacrifice and Life. But for this very purpose he labors first to expose man to himself; to awaken him to the fact that he is before everything else a sinner; to reverse the Tempter’s spell, and to let him see the fact of his guilt with open eyes.

“The Gospel,” someone has said, “can never be proved except to a bad conscience.” If bad means “awakened,” the saying is profoundly true. With a conscience sound asleep we may discuss Christianity, whether to condemn it, or to applaud. We may see in it an elevating program for the race. We may affirm, a thousand times, that from the creed that God became flesh there result boundless possibilities for Humanity. But the Gospel, “the power of God unto salvation,” will hardly be seen in its own prevailing self-evidence, as it is presented in this wonderful Epistle, till the student is first and with all else a penitent. The man must know for himself something of sin as condemnable guilt, and something of self as a thing in helpless yet responsible bondage, before he can so see Christ given for us, and risen for us, and seated at the right hand of God for us, as to say, ” There is now no condemnation; Who shall separate us from the love of God? I know whom I have believed.”

To the full sight of Christ there needs a true sight of self, that is to say, of sin.

Taken from, “THE EXPOSITOR’S BIBLE”
Written by, H.C.G. MOULE