The beginning of a four-part series on Romans 1:18-32, this material comes out of some research and writing I’ve been doing recently.

“A soul that turns away from You therefore lapses into sexual immorality when it seeks apart from You what it can never find in pure and serene form except by returning to You.  All those who wander far away and set themselves up against You are imitating You, but in a perverse way; yet by this very mimicry they proclaim that you are the Creator of the whole of nature, and that in consequence there is no place whatever where we can hide from Your presence.”[1]

“Sexual sin is a consequence, or outworking, of the rejection of God and a failure to honor him.  The fundamental sin is a failure to worship him.  All other sin is a consequence of this one.”[2]

Sooner or later, all thoughtful and sensitive Christians who are immersed in the stunning biblical vision for the flourishing of human sexuality must ask a simple yet pressing question: what went wrong?  All around us in society and within us in our own disordered desires (and, perhaps, practices), we are incessantly bombarded with daily reminders that God’s good designs for sex have been unjustly pirated through the deceitfulness of sin.  Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr once cleverly noted that the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian religion was original sin—namely, that all human beings are by nature alienated from God and selfishly spurn the holy claims of His lordship over our existence.[3]  Every civilization and worldview has always implicitly recognized that things are not the way they are supposed to be in the world.  

But what has gone so horribly wrong with human sexuality in particular?  The Christian answer, in a word, is idolatry.  While the various forms which sexual sin can assume are innumerable, and while the harmful social consequences of our self-centered sexual practices make themselves felt with frightful effect upon both us and others, it is nevertheless the case that only one basic reality constitutes the root of the overall human dilemma.  Time and again, the Scriptures insist that everything that has gone wrong in God’s good creation can be traced back to the fundamental human sin of idolatry.  The Christian faith, therefore, necessarily demands that a deeper theological diagnosis be provided for the surface moral problems which complicate human sexuality.[4]  Albert Wolters gives poignant expression to this conviction:

“[It is] a central scriptural teaching…that wherever anything wrong exists in the world, anything we experience as anti-normative, evil, distorted, or sick, there we meet the perversion of God’s good creation.  It is one of the unique and distinctive features of the Bible’s teaching on the human situation that all evil and perversity in the world is ultimately the result of humanity’s fall, of its refusal to live according to the good ordinances of God’s creation.  Human disobedience and guilt lie in the last analysis at the root of all the troubles on earth.”[5]

Idolatry can be summarized as the proclivity to turn away from God as the locus of one’s highest aspirations for fulfillment and significance, and to subsequently redirect these yearnings for worth and beauty and happiness (primarily) to various aspects of the created world.  Richard Keyes provides a useful psychological description of how idolatry actually functions in our lives:

 “At the most basic level, idols are what we make out of the evidence for God within ourselves and in the world—if we do not want to face the face of God Himself in His majesty and holiness.  Rather than look to the Creator and have to deal with His lordship, we orient our lives toward the creation, where we can be more free to control and shape our lives in our desired directions…since we were made to relate to God, but do not want to face Him, we forever inflate things in this world to religious proportions to fill the vacuum left by God’s exclusion…An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God.  All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions toward them.”[6]

And Tim Keller writes:

“What is an idol?  It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lost it, your life would feel hardly worth living.  An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought…An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’…If anything in life becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.” (Counterfeit Gods, xvii-xix)

Consider now how frequently idolatry and sexual immorality appear in tandem throughout the biblical narrative (see Exodus 32, Isaiah 57:7-8, Hosea 4:12-14, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5, Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25).  An obvious logic justifies their pairing:

“The link between idolatry and sexual immorality is established by the frequent use of ‘prostituting themselves’ or ‘adultery’ to describe Hebrew idolatry [in the Old Testament].  Israel’s unfaithfulness to God was not only a form of spiritual prostitution or adultery, but it also led to the physical acts themselves.”[7]

Indeed, these particular sins are the only two that always occur in the many vice lists in Paul’s letters, which otherwise tend to vary considerably. 

Sexual immorality is taken with utter seriousness by the biblical writers.  It is never swept under the rug, or blindly tolerated because of some twisted account of human autonomy or the freedom of “love” to invent its own rules.  Nor is it ever played down in comparison to some other less fashionable sins in any given cultural era.  

Yet all sexual sin is, at the end of the day, merely a symptom of something else.  It is not the main problem with human beings—not even close.  The persistent diagnosis of Scripture is that our main problem lay in the fact that we are not satisfied in God’s beauty and goodness as the center of our existence, but rather illicitly horde the good gifts of creation over the Giver to whom they point, aiming to remind us along the way of why He is so outlandishly worthy to be loved with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength.  We prefer the seductive allure of what God has created, and this spiritual disorientation then overflows into every other sphere of our existence—including our sexuality.  Everything is turned upside down—splintered, deformed and henceforth death-dealing to our spirituality—once we have culpably alienated ourselves from the only true Source of life and love.[8]

However, Romans 1:18-32 is far and away the most important passage in the entire Bible for examining the intimate connection which exists between idolatry and sexual immorality, as here Paul provides a sustained reflection on why the former actually leads to the latter in human experience.  And to this passage we will turn our attention over the next few weeks:

“For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and “exchanged” the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore, God handed them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they “exchanged” the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.

For this reason, God handed them over to dishonorable passions.  For their women “exchanged” natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And because they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

Three overarching implications stem from the theological rationale behind Paul’s indictment of sinful humanity.  These will be considered in the next three weeks.

[1] Augustine, Confessions, 2.14

[2] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, p. 91

[3] Chesterton made the same observation: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

[4] “The whole dreadful panoply of sins that plague humanity has its roots in the soil of this idolatry.” (Doug Moo, Romans, p. 110)

[5] Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, p. 46

[6] Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” in No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age, pp. 31-33

[7] Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, pp. 64-65

[8] “The Old Testament says that if God’s people turn away in spiritual adultery, it will not be long until the following generations are engaged in physical adultery, for the two things go hand in hand. . . . Our generation proves this with overwhelming force.  Let there be spiritual adultery and it will not be long until physical adultery sprouts like toadstools in the land.  In the 1930s liberalism took over almost all the churches in the United States, and in the 1960s our generation is sick with promiscuous sex.  It is the same in Britain and other countries.  These things are not unrelated; they are cause and effect.” (Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, pp. 123-124)