In response to the idolatrous exchanges mentioned in the previous post, Romans 1 tells us that God, in judgment, “gives the unbeliever over” to punishment. This word is used three times in Romans 1, each time in response to one of the exchanges. It is used in the Gospels to describe Pilate handing Jesus over to be scourged, and Judas handing Jesus over in betrayal. It means “to hand over, to give back, or deliver into the hands of.” In other words, God’s response is to give those who suppress the truth into the hands of their unbelief. The unbeliever is forced to live with the consequences of his rejection of the truth. What are these consequences?
God hands the unbeliever over to impurity and disgrace. (v. 24, 26, 28). One of the common characteristics of those who suppress the truth is they specifically don’t want God limiting their sexuality. As a result, God gives them over to the lusts of their hearts to the extent that they become “unclean” and “without honor.” The idea of being unclean or defiled hearkens back to the Old Testament need to become ritually clean before an Israelite could approach God. Until he cleansed himself according to God’s directions, the Israelite remained impure and could not approach God. On the other end of the scale was the pagan worshiper who defiled himself with his debased worship of his gods, brutal sacrifices, and gross immorality. The pagans in Canaan were so inhuman that the land “vomited them out” (Lev. 18:28). When God hands a person over to the lusts of his heart, he has to live with the resulting uncleanness.
God also allows unbelievers to dishonor their bodies among themselves and become slaves to their passions. This speaks of the lack of dignity that comes from rejecting God’s ways. By rejecting the glory of God, the unbeliever becomes undignified as he who is made in God’s image worships animals, birds, and animals that creep along the ground (v. 23). Their minds dwell on the most worthless and beastly thoughts. The list that concludes Romans 1 details the extent of the baseness with twenty-one descriptions of the wickedness of those who suppress the truth. Paul concludes with a stunning statement—not only do those who do such things know they are deserving of death, they encourage others to do them too.
This extensive description of unbelievers is a stunning contrast to the way unbelievers, and often Christians, view non-Christians. Things are far worse for the unbeliever than he ever imagines. Yet, this makes the Good News all the more glorious. The more a person accepts God’s assessment of his heart and estrangement from God, the closer he comes to repentance and faith in Christ. To soften the blow of this description is to blunt the call to repentance, making salvation more difficult to obtain. Only with the conviction of his rebellion and idolatry will the unbeliever be able to see the beauty and rationality of the gospel.
In the next post, we return to the Christian’s strategy for evangelism and apologetics. We will see that God calls us to confront the intellectual and ethical fortresses that people construct in order to resist the knowledge of God that rises up in them every day.