NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XXIII)
Reformer Martin Luther has this to say about God’s nonintervention when a person follows his own desires even though he sees evidence of God’s involvement in other people’s lives. He writes: “From this, we must not conclude that God wants to see sin, even if it does occur according to His will. On the contrary, as such, but He permits sin to execute His punitive judgment upon those who deserve it. The punishment, however, is not properly the sin itself, but the condemnation which is connected with it.”1 This is another way of saying, that sometimes God lets stubborn people learn the hard way that His way is better than their way.
John Calvin expresses his feeling about the subject of God giving up on those who turned to idols instead of turning to Him. He writes: “With irreverence being a hidden evil, and to avoid their finding an alibi, Paul shows, by a more perceptible demonstration, that, they cannot escape, but must be held fast by a just condemnation, since such fruits have followed this irreverence as cannot be viewed otherwise than manifest evidence of the Lord’s wrath. By such evidence then he now proves the apostasy and defection of men: for the Lord indeed does so punish those, who alienate themselves from Him with their own low condition, when they ought humbly to have given Him His own glory.”2 In other words, the error of substituting idols for the true and living God cannot be blamed on God. God is available at all times, but not in the way many desire Him to be. So it’s man’s choice, and he must, therefore, deal with the consequences.
H. A. Ironside makes this observation: “Men could not stand this intimate knowledge of God for it made them uncomfortable in their sins; so a host of lesser deities and divinities were invented as go-betweens, and eventually the knowledge of the true God was entirely lost. But even today creation is His constant witness. This orderly universe with its succession of the seasons and the mathematical accuracy of the movements of the heavenly bodies bears testimony to the Divine Mind. The stars in their courses proclaim the great Creator’s power.3
Forever singing as they shine, The Hand that made us is divine.4
One word in the original is rendered by four words in English: ‘Things-that-are-made’ is Poima, and from this, we get our word poem. Creation is God’s great epic poem, every part fitted together like the lines and verses of a majestic hymn.”5
Charles Hodge also speaks to the meaning of God abandoning those who insisted on worshiping false gods to reap the harvest of the seed they sowed: “This is explained as a simple permission on the part of God. But it removes no real difficulty. If God permits those who forsake Him to sink into vice, He does it intelligently and intentionally. The language of the apostle, as well as the analogy of Scripture, demands more than this. It is at least a judicial abandonment. It is a punishment for their apostasy that God gives men up to the power of sin. He withdraws from the wicked the restraints of His providence and grace and gives them over to the dominion of sin. God is presented in the Bible as the absolute moral and physical ruler of the world. He governs all things according, to the counsel of His own will and the nature of His creatures. What happens as consequences does not come by chance, but as designed; and the sequence is secured by His control.”6
John Stott sees a connection between man’s stubborn mindset to live his life as he pleases as the reason for idolatry. He says: “God’s judgment on the people’s idolatry was to give them over to the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity. The history of the world confirms that idolatry trends to immorality. A false image of God leads to a false understanding of sex. Paul does not tell us what kind of immorality he has in mind, except that it involved the degrading of their bodies with one another. He is right. Illicit sex degrades people’s humanness; sex in marriage, as God intended, ennobles it.”7
Also, Douglas Moo makes this comment: “Paul’s purpose in this verse is to highlight the divine side of the cycle of sin; but it must be balanced with the human side, presented in Ephesians 4:19, where Paul says that Gentiles ‘gave themselves up’ to licentiousness, leading to all kinds of ‘uncleanness.’ C. H. Dodd, in keeping with his interpretation of God’s wrath, thinks the ‘handing over’ is no more than the outworking of the natural processes of history. But so impersonal a procedure does justice neither to the biblical teaching about God’s sovereign activity in history nor to Paul’s active language.”8
Jewish theologian David Stern makes some very straightforward remarks on how we should interpret what Paul says here: “When people stray from God, he eventually gives them over to the consequences of their horrific error — in physical (v. 24), emotional (v. 26) and mental (v. 28) dimensions, that is, in every aspect of their lives. Sexual sin (v. 24) and, in particular, homosexuality (vv. 26– 27) are singled out as punishments from God, punishments which themselves are sins.” With this view then, we can see how any punishment that results in a person’s immoral behavior does not come from God but from the sin they are committing, such as Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD).
Verse 25: They used the truth of God to promote a lie. They bowed down and worshiped the things God made instead of worshiping the God who made those things. He is the one who should be praised forever. Amen.
Paul continues his critique of the way the Greeks and Barbarians ran after the fantasies and mirages of man-made gods. But he points out, it wasn’t because they had no other choice, but exactly because they did made that choice. They turned from a living God to dead gods. This is something that the prophet Isaiah also confronted in his day: “They don’t realize what they are doing. They aren’t smart enough to think, ‘I burned half of the wood in the fire. I used the hot coals to bake my bread and cook the meat I ate. Then I used the wood that was left over to make this terrible thing. I am worshiping a block of wood!’ Someone like that is deceived. They don’t know what they are doing. They cannot save themselves, and they will not admit, ‘This statue I am holding is a lie!‘”9
God saw the situation in Israel getting so bad, that He called out to the prophet Jeremiah: “Do these people think they can make real gods for themselves? No, they can only make statues that are not gods at all. So, I want to let them know once and for all what real power and might looks like. Then they will know for sure that I am Lord.”10 Unfortunately, by the time God began to use the prophet Habakkuk, He was forced to say: “Their false god will not help them because it is only a statue that someone formed out of metal. It is only a statue, so whoever made it cannot expect it to help. That statue cannot even speak. Look at them! They speak to a wooden statue and tell it, ‘Get up! Rescue me.’ They talk to a stone that cannot speak and say, ‘Wake up!’ Don’t you know those things cannot help you? That statue may be covered with gold and silver, but there is no life in it.”11
One early church scholar examined this practice of converting God’s truth into a lie. He writes: “They gave the name of the true God to these things, which are false gods. Ignoring what rocks and wood and other metals really are, they attributed to them something which does not belong to them. The truth of God is turned into a lie when a rock is called God. This fact drove out the God who is true, and since true and false shared a common name, it was easy for the true God to be regarded as false. This is what it means to change what is true into falsehood. For those things were not called rock or wood, but God. This is to worship the creature rather than the Creator, which is what they did. They did not deny God but worshiped a creature as God. In order to justify this, they gave these things the honor due to God, so that their worship rendered dishonor to God. For that reason, He was quick to punish them, because although they knew God, they did not honor him ‘who is blessed for ever. Amen.’ This is true!”12
This redirecting one’s prayers, praise, and thanksgiving from God to some object that is labeled as a form of God have happened again in the congregation of believers. Things such as carved figures of the apostles, early church saints, and even the mother of Jesus. What would parents think if all of a sudden their son or daughter would send a close friend or someone they admired, to speak with them as their way of saying “Thank You,” or to ask for some need, or, to ask forgiveness for some mistake they made against their parent’s instructions. In most cases, the parents would say: Go tell them to come to me in person and converse with me directly.
Martin Luther shares his opinion of what is going on here with these arrogant philosophers: “They do not do Him the honor to admit that the glorious God is supremely exalted over their reason and judgment, but they elevate their own opinions so highly that they have no more difficulty or fear to judge God than they judge the leather of a poor shoemaker.”13 It isn’t that Luther doesn’t like the workmanship of poor shoemakers, but that these self-important thinkers prize their concepts over anything that comes from God. But the real rub is that often the critics of these poor shoemakers are people who have never made a shoe themselves. So they are left to judging the quality of the leather rather than the workmanship. In that sense, they see God’s ethics and virtues as having far less intellectual class than their own, rather than admiring the divine intellect behind them.
John Calvin notes: “Paul repeats what he had said before, though in different words, in order to fix it deeper in our minds. When the truth of God is turned to a lie, His glory is obliterated. It is only just that they should be showered with every kind of infamy who strive to take away from God His honor, and also to reproach His name.” Calvin then adds: “No religious honor can be given to a creature without [simultaneously] taking it away, in a disgraceful and irreverent manner, from God: and vain is the excuse that images are worshiped on God’s account, since God acknowledges no such worship, nor regards it as acceptable; and the true God is not then worshiped at all, but a fictitious god, whom the flesh has devised for itself.”14
1 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 47
2 John Calvin: On Romans op. cit., loc, cit.
3 See Psalm 19
4 These words are attributed to Joseph Addison (1672-1719) who wrote the hymn: The Spacious Firmament on High
5 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 111
9 Isaiah 44:19-20
10 Jeremiah 16:20-21
11 Habakkuk 2:18-19
12 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
13 Matin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 48
14 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.