God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.
They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,
30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful,
inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
32 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.
Homosexuality is emblematic of humanity’s fall from the dignity bestowed by the Creator, but many other sin patterns entangle people. Before Paul lists some of those vices, he points to where they originate: (1) people’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge what they know to be true about God from the revelation of himself in creation (1:21), and (2) their turn to other gods.Downward spiral of idolatry
God’s abhorrence of idolatry is evident in the first two Commandments (Exodus 20:3–5). Those prohibitions are grounded not only in God’s holiness and jealousy but also in his love (20:6). This connection between love and law is so important to understand. From divine love springs the warning against behaviors that bring grievous harm on people (see Deuteronomy 4:40). Idolatry breeds multitudes of sins, which is why Paul in this latter part of chapter 1 demonstrates its evil consequences (for the chain of logic, see verses 23, 25, and “For this reason” in verse 26).
Idolatry is not confined to the worship of images. It extends to anything in the heart and behavior that takes precedence over God. So virtually every sin is a form of spiritual adultery, a chasing after a different lover than the One who is worthy of utmost honor and praise.
For example, covetousness—one of the sins in verse 29—is idolatry (Colossians 3:5, Matthew 6:24). Sexual immorality is harlotry (1 Corinthians 6:15). Stubbornness is as idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23). We should check our own behavior before looking with disdain on ancient pagans’ strange deities, Charles Swindoll advises. Modern human beings “frequently confuse the gift for the Giver. They look to their paychecks for provision, dutifully serve their own livelihoods, and even sacrifice their marriage and children on the altar of career.”Refusal to know God
The phrase “they did not see fit to acknowledge him” is literally “they did not approve of having God in knowledge.” Douglas Moo points out that the Greek noun for knowledge suggests experiential as opposed to theoretical knowledge. It’s the kind of knowledge that would lead to glorifying and thanking God, Moo says. Although most people believe that God exists, few involve him in their way of life.
David invites people to “taste and see that God is good” (Psalm 34:8). The people of whom Paul speaks have decided beforehand that God would be bitter to their taste.What is a “debased” mind?
Verse 28 has Paul’s third use of the phrase “God gave them up” (see verses 24 and 26). Because people dismiss him, God gives them over to a “debased” mind—a mind worthless, unqualified, disapproved. Something our English translations don’t show is that Paul plays with words to make a point his hearers would have enjoyed.
The verb for “they did not see fit” and the adjective for “debased” are different forms of a Greek word having to do with testing something for approval or rejection. In people’s minds, God did not pass their test. They disqualified him from being worthy to know. In turn, God gave them a mind unqualified to think straight about moral and ethical issues. Marvin Vincent captures Paul’s rhetorical touch: “As they did not approve, God gave them up unto a mind disapproved.”
When God gives people up to their sins, it is an expression of his judgment. God’s judgment always falls on those who sit in judgment of God. In this case, God gives them up to minds bent on doing “what ought not to be done”—all the evil and foolish things we encounter below. Having already dealt with sexual sins, Paul turns his attention to offenses against other individuals and the community.Litany of sins
Verses 29–31 are a catalog of human-caused misery, of what happens when human beings in rebellion against God turn on one another. Most of these 21 sins are self-explanatory, and some have overlapping meaning. Others, for rhetorical effect, sound alike in Greek. By grammar and meaning they divide into three categories.
The list begins with four general vices: unrighteousness, evil, covetousness (greed), malice. The first term, unrighteousness, signals the social applications of the entire list. It means unjust behavior toward other human beings. Vincent notes the wide meaning of covetousness: “the sinful desire which goes out after things of time and sense of every form and kind…. the worship of another object than God.”
The next group consists of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. Charles Cranfield suggests that the latter four evils can be explained as fruit of envy. Everett Harrison portrays maliciousness as “a mind-set that attributes evil motives to others without provocation.”
Most of the 12 remaining vices focus on interpersonal relations. There are three subcategories: (1) Gossips (whisperers) and slanderers destroy others’ reputations, perhaps the difference being that gossips do it in private, slanderers publicly. Humans are defenseless against gossips’ whispers, Cranfield notes. (2) Arrogance characterizes the next four: haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful. (3) The concluding six are a miscellany: inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless (meaning unreliable), heartless, ruthless.
Heartless means the absence of love for family members. William Barclay (cited by Cranfield) notes the Graeco-Roman world’s practice of exposing unwanted babies and of actual infanticide. Application for today is obvious.Concluding indictment (verse 32)
With the phrase “they know God’s righteous decree,” Paul asserts that all people possess a basic awareness of both God (1:19) and his righteousness. They know as well that violation of this innate moral law incurs the penalty of death—eternal separation from God (see 5:12 and 13). Paul further develops these concepts in 2:14–15.
They don’t approve of acknowledging God but they do heartily approve of those who practice the sins they themselves enjoy. It is one thing to sin, perhaps impulsively out of passion, and then to have regret. It is worse to applaud other sinners, Paul suggests, because it reveals a heart without remorse. Things get out of hand at a party when people cheer on one another.Social consequences of rejecting God
Atheists are fond of saying society would be better off without religion and especially without Christianity. Paul would vehemently disagree, of course, and he would point to all these grievous sins as evidence of a society’s failure to recognize and honor the God of creation.
God’s laws are intended to protect from harm people who bear his image. It only takes a few miscreants victimizing others to instill fear and grief in the entire community. If people were to examine the daily crime report in the light of this passage, maybe it would prompt them to search out their idols—all the things they prioritize over God—and repent.
What might a society look like whose citizens exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? This is a society bearing the fruit of rulership by God the Father, Christ the Lord, and the Holy Sprint.