A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on June 27, 2021.
Therefore God gave them up 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 gave them up 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 since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up 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 righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:24–32).
“God gave them up”: Some of the saddest words in the Bible, repeated three times in this short passage. But what does “God gave them up” mean? And who did he give up, and why? Is it a statement of divine resignation? Has God given up on the world he loved and to whom he sent his one and only Son (John 3:16)?
Consider the context of our passage which points back, with the word “therefore,” to the preceding passage. Paul explains that “the wrath of God is revealed” (present tense) “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). This is the fallen human condition, whether acknowledged or not. Left to himself, man suppresses the truth about God, dishonors God, is ungrateful to God, and willfully worships anything but the one, true God.
We often think of the fallen human condition and God in terms of relationship. And it is true that sin severed the relationship established at creation, but more often than not the Bible describes this dilemma in terms of worship. As sinners, it’s not that we don’t worship; we worship anything and everything but the one, true God.
Consider the first four of the Ten Commandments. The First commands us to have “no other gods” before the one, true God (Ex. 20:3). It is a command of exclusivity in worship. The Second commands us to not make and worship idols (Ex. 20:4-5). It is a command of exclusivity in the act of worship. The Third commands us to not use God’s name wrongly. It is a command of exclusivity in the words of worship. The Fourth commands the remembrance and keeping of the Sabbath. It is a command of exclusivity in the time of worship. Therefore, we see in each of these commands, and in summary, the primacy of worshiping the one, true God.
Of course, God gave these commandments to the descendants of Jacob, as his covenant people. But Paul reveals that actually every man, woman, and child have these commands “written on their hearts” of which their “conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15). In other words, every single person since the Fall has known that God is to be worshiped exclusively in act, word, and time, and yet apart from God’s grace no one does. The sinful heart denies conscience and does what it wants to do: worship the created over the Creator. And so, God lets them: he gives them up.
Spiritually speaking, every person is comprised of intellect, will, and emotion. And so, we should not be surprised to find sin prevalent in each. As Paul explains, we sin emotionally through sinful desire. We sin willfully through dishonorable passions. And we sin intellectually through a debased mind. Let’s consider each of these individually as well as how the gospel delivers us from each.
Contrary to the fallen human perspective, unbridled freedom is not a blessing. When Paul writes, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” he does not mean that God abandons them, but he does not keep them from their sin. As C.S. Lewis describes it, the unregenerate “enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded and are therefore self-enslaved.” God never gives up the unregenerate to his desires in mercy but in wrath.
The outworking of this desire is in pursuit of impurity, or uncleanness, which is not captive to the heart alone but carried out through the body. As human beings are both spiritual and physical beings, what burns in the heart flames out through the body, a fire kindled and ablaze for perversion.
But there is hope for the fallen human condition. The gospel delivers us from the sinful desires of the heart, leading us to faith in Christ, repentance of sin, and the gift of a new heart that willingly worships the one, true God. This does not mean, however, that our sinful flesh doesn’t seek to deceive our heart, which means that we must be actively engaged in guarding it. As wisdom counsels us, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life” (Prov. 4:23 NET). This calls for Christian discernment, discipline, and diligence.
Christians, consider these five ways we may protect your heart from your sinful flesh. First, guard your heart like a temple for worship. Your heart is the place of worship for nothing else or no one else but God. Second, feed your heart on the Word of God, through reading, meditating, and especially under preaching. Eliminate mindless junk food. Avoid the trite and trivial. Third, edify your heart through faithful observance of the sacraments. Prepare your heart before the Lord’s Supper, be nourished through it, and think afterwards of the clear gospel preached in it. In the presence of a baptism, think back to your own and the sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace upon you. Fourth, speak through and to your heart in faithful prayer. Develop the discipline of daily prayer and delight in its tranquility—less lists more adoration. Fifth, exercise your heart in faithful assembled worship. Do not forsake worshiping on the Lord’s Day, as is the habit of some malnourished Christians (Heb. 10:25). Be present, engaged, and edified every week. As you are faithful to condition your converted heart through the work of the Holy Spirit, your desires will grow increasingly distinct from those whom God has given up.
In addition to the sinful desires of the hearts of fallen humanity, God also “gave them up to dishonorable passions.” Unlike other sins in this passage, Paul is quite specific in what these vile passions are. Although from the beginning of creation “God made them male and female” and in marital union “the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:6,8), in his wrath God gave up men and women to the liberty of their perversion. In his wrath and in their pride, God lets them have precisely what they want: homosexual relations between women and between men.
In describing this, Paul does not define it as innate to or inherited by men or women but contrary to God’s design, exchanging the natural for the unnatural—not a description of being but of perverted doing. Such thoughts and actions are “shameless,” what John Murray calls “a lower plane of degeneracy.” It is an attraction that has no natural fulfillment, fulfillment that has no justification, only perversion. Rather than a celebration of human liberty, homosexuality is its own consequence, enslaving the prideful with, what one commentator calls, “the gnawing unsatisfied lust itself, together with the dreadful physical and moral consequence of debauchery.” Nothing to be proud of.
Though evidencing God’s wrath, such sin is not the unforgivable. By God’s grace through faith in Christ, we are saved from God’s wrath, from the unnatural, perverse, and shameless to a new life (2 Cor. 5:17) and new identity (Gal. 2:20) in Christ. Rather than being labeled by the perverse, as Christians, our moral life, even our sexuality, is to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9) in thought and deed. As his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10), we serve as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), living not in the liberty of the fallen but as the redeemed. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).
As if completing the picture of the depravity of humankind, “God gave them up to a debased mind.” As man is a spiritual being of intellect, will, and emotion, fallen in sin man is emotionally depraved, willfully depraved, and intellectually depraved. This is not to say that man lacks reason, but in his present wrath God has freed man to a “counterfeit reason,” a reprobate mind. It is a mind not fit to acknowledge God nor willingly worship him.
Nor is what the mind thinks without consequence. Freed to its depravity, the head enlivens the heart and empowers the hand “to do what ought not to be done.” The unregenerate mind is no moral compass but justifies the embrace of unrighteousness, leading to a litany of sins which are inherently evil, selfishly covetous, and unlovingly malicious.
The sins Paul lists are in no particular order nor are they comprehensive. The point is to rightly describe the human depravity of the unregenerate and to call our attention to the “respectable” sins our flesh clings to. If we are honest with ourselves, we may find that while we may be less susceptible to murder and maliciousness we may hide our envy, deny our strife, and deceive ourselves. Indeed, we may despise the worldly as haters of God, inventors of evil, considering them faithless, heartless, ruthless fools. Meanwhile, as Christians we slander our neighbor, despise the lowly, boast of our rights, with little regard for any authority we didn’t choose.
Yet, our sinful flesh does not and will not have the last word. While God has freed fallen man to the liberty of his self-enslavement, by God’s grace through faith in Christ we are delivered from a debased mind. And, as Jesus said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be freed indeed” (John 8:36).
How then by God’s grace do we mortify our flesh and train our minds? Consider Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20). Wise words for the childish church in Corinth—even more so for the childish church today. Matthew Henry comments, “Christians should be harmless and inoffensive as children, void of all guile and malice; but should have wisdom and knowledge that are ripe and mature. They should not be unskillful in the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:13), though they should be unskillful in all the arts of mischief.” Many Christians today have disconnected their minds from their deeds, thinking like the dead rather than the delivered.
We who are indwelled by the Spirit of Christ are to exhibit the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), developing the capacity to reason properly and think through matters completely. Sadly, many Christians today are easily duped, lacking disciplined discernment. Mature Christians learn to discipline their minds, which not only encourages their growth but also keeps them from sin. Let us be infants in evil but mature of mind.
Delivered in Christ
In his wrath, God has indeed given up fallen humanity to the sinful desires of the heart, dishonorable passions, and a debased mind, but through the gospel he has delivered all who believe in Christ. In Christ, we are saved from the wrath of God and delivered to willingly worship God with our intellect, will, and emotion. If you have not believed savingly upon the Lord Jesus Christ, know that the wrath of God remains upon you, evidenced in sinful desires, dishonorable passions, and a debased mind. But hope is not lost: Believe, even today, on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved from God’s wrath, adopted into his family, and given eternal life.
For those in Christ, you have been born again and saved from the wrath of God, but your sinful flesh is not yet dead. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, you must actively wage war against the sinful flesh, setting your heart, passions, and mind upon the things of God. For, God has not given you up but has delivered you by his grace.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” quoted in F.F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 92.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publsihing Co., 1968), 47.
 William G.T. Shedd, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary upon the Episitle of St. Paul to the Romans, quoted in John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publsihing Co., 1968), 48.
 F.F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 92.
 C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: T&T Clark Ltd, 1975), 1:128.
 Burk Parsons, ed. “Mature in Thinking,” Tabletalk (June 22, 2021), https://tabletalkmagazine.com/daily-study/2021/06/mature-in-thinking/.