Death of a Society - Romans 1:28-32

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:28-32).

 

Grace is never amazing until we know the wrath of God. Before we can understand the good news of salvation, we must first know the bad news of condemnation. Before we can appreciate the grace of God, there must be an awareness of our guilt before Him. This is the strategic importance of this opening section in Romans 1:18-3:20 that pronounces the judgment of God upon the human race. In this lesson from Romans 1:28-32, we will have reinforced the truth that it is the judgment of God upon man’s sin that makes the message of justification by faith so wonderful. Here is the black velvet backdrop that makes the diamond of God’s grace shine all the more brightly.

 

Here, we find the warning signs of the impending death of a society. These threatening marks reveal the death of any nation, culture, or society. The graveyard of past civilizations is filled with these corpses. As we examine this passage, it raises the questions: Can any nation survive without God? Can any society function without acknowledging the moral laws of God? Can any culture endure without the moral restraint of the law of God? Is there any hope for a collective group of people to function successfully without God in its center?

 

In these concluding verses of Romans chapter one, here is the final outcome of any society that rejects the knowledge of God. These verses describe any collective group of people who reject God and descend morally into a death spiral. This section describes the slippery slope for any society that has turned its back on God. This moral decline accelerates at a rapidly increasing speed. Here is the increasing darkness into which a godless people fall until they self-destructs.

  

The sobering truth, as found in Romans 1:28-32, helps us to understand the world in which we live today. We are not going to hear this message of impending doom any place other than where the full counsel of the word of God is taught. This teaching is totally antithetical to what the world believes. This understanding of world history – and this present generation – is counterintuitive to every other man-centered worldview. This is the divine perspective that God has revealed to us.

 

I. Society’s REJECTION of God (1:28a)

 

Paul begins, “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (verse 28). Who is “they?” Its antecedents are found in the previous verse, “their women,” “their desire,” and “their error” (verse 27). Earlier, “For this reason God gave them over” (verse 26). “They exchanged the knowledge of God for a lie” (verse 25). In the verse before, “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity so that their bodies would be dishonored” (verse 24).

 

As we keep tracing the antecedent to its beginning, we read, “They became fools” (verse 22). “Even though they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks. They became futile in their foolish speculations” (verse 21). “They are without excuse” (verse 20). “That which is known about God is evident within them for God made it evident to them” (verse 19). In verse 18, we finally arrive at the antecedent. Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” “They” in verse 28 are the God-rejectors in verses 18-27. This describes those outside the kingdom of God, who live with ungodly attitudes and unrighteous lifestyles.

 

This is not intended to suggest that everyone who rejects God becomes attracted to the opposite sex, as verses 26-27 describe. Rather, Paul is identifying a segment of people within the whole. This describes a society that has refused God. As they refuse Him the rightful place He deserves in their lives, God abandons them to this moral tailspin. Because they reject God, He rejects them. Paul later writes, “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Hebrews 10:30). It is because of their defiance of God that He repays them with His wrath of divine abandonment.

 

A Reemphasized Truth

When Paul writes, “They did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (verse 28), he is re-emphasizing this initial sin of rejecting God that he described earlier in this section concerning “men who suppress the truth” (verse 19). When the truth about God is made known to them, they chose not to receive it, but to suppress it. They held down the knowledge of God in order to not have to deal with Him. Paul previously described this rejection when he writes, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God” (verse 21). He further identified them as those who “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (verse 23). Reinforcing this truth, Paul adds, “They exchange the truth of God for a lie” (verse 25). This sewer of sin flows until it becomes a polluted river that floods a society with its immoral corruption.

 

This is the fifth time in this section that Paul has stressed their intentional rejection of God (verses 18, 21, 23, 25, 28). He writes, “they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (verse 28), which means when they had the knowledge about God, they chose to reject Him. God has made known the truth of His existence and character to every person on the earth through general revelation (verse 19). Yet, they have deliberately rejected Him and suffer the divine judgment upon that unbelief.

 

A Severer Punishment

It is a serious matter to reject the truth about God. There is a severe condemnation for those who refuse the general revelation of God in creation and conscience. A much severer punishment awaits those who refuse the special revelation of the gospel. This certainly describes the moral decline of every society. In addition, there are nations that have received the special revelation of God in the gospel. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States. There has never been a nation that has received so much gospel truth as this country. There have been an unprecedented number of church pulpits, television programs, radio broadcasts, Bible colleges, and publishing houses that have proclaimed the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. There has never been a people that has had more direct exposure to the divine revelation in the word of God. Yet no people have so resolutely rejected this knowledge of God.

 

There is no more serious sin than the rejection of God. The blatant refusal of God reaches a tipping point for any society. God Himself is the determinative issue for every nation, culture, and society. The moral decline that we are witnessing is the aftereffect of an all-out war against God. This nation has made it clear that we do not want the truth of God in our public life. This country does not want the justice of God in the courtroom. We do not want the mind of God in the classroom. We do not want to see the name of God in the public square. We are seeing the repudiation of God in our national life that arises out of the total depravity of the human heart.

 

II. Society’s RETRIBUTION From God (1:28b)

  

As Paul continues his argument, he states that divine retribution awaits any society that rejects Him. The apostle announces, “so God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things that are not proper” (verse 28). This is the third time in these few verses Paul has announced, “God gave them over” (verses 24, 26, 28). This threefold repetition is an intentional emphasis that comes with blood-chilling force. The verb “gave them over” (paradidomai) means ‘to be given over to judgment.’ It was used this way in Romans 4:25 and 8:32, when Jesus was given over to judgment before Pilate to be condemned. The word is used numerous times in the book of Acts to describe one who had been arrested and given over into prison (8:3, 12:4, 21:11, 27:1, 28:17). In these instances, Christians were put in chains, locked up, and confined to jail.

 

When Paul writes, “God gave them over,” he means that God has delivered them over to divine judgment for their unbelief. This statement announces a sentence of divine condemnation in which they are imprisoned in their own sins so that they cannot escape. They are now locked up in their sin, and there is no hope of escape except by a divine intervention of mercy.

 

In this judgment, Paul writes, “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” This is the third time they have been given over to their sin. At first, God gave them over to sexual immorality (verse 24). Then God gave them over to lesbian and homosexual activity (verse 26-27). Finally, God gave them over to a “depraved mind” (adokimos). This means that their thinking is no longer capable of reasonable thought. It means that they are unable to think rationally or logically concerning issues of life. Their mind is rendered incapable of rational thought. They make insane choices that they would have never made otherwise. This exercise of divine justice causes them to sink yet deeper in their sin.

 

Whenever a collective society hits this point, they have sunk to new lows. They have reached the point of no return.  Their depraved mind causes them to make illogical decisions. This is what we have in the transgender bathroom situation. Is there anything more insane than that? That is a depraved, reprobate mind that is incapable of sound thinking. And who knows what is next? Paul says these are things unlawful to mention in public.

 

III. Society’s Rottenness Without God (1:29-31)

 

The tragic result of this depraved mind is found in verses 29-31, which is the longest vice list found anywhere in the Bible. A similar list of carnality is found in other places in the Bible, but this one is the most comprehensive. It is not to be considered all-inclusive, but representative of the total collapse of a society. This is merely the tip of the iceberg of a society that is abandoned by God. This catalogue of corruption is the concentrated synopsis of a godless people.

 

In these verses, there are twenty-one sins listed, arranged in four sections. This morally depraved culture is described as “being filled with” (pleroo) all kinds of evils. This is the same word, “filled,” that is used in Ephesians 5:18, where believers are commanded to be filled by the Spirit. This means that a follower of Christ must be supernaturally energized by the Spirit to do the will and work of God. Such a person is under the control of the Spirit and dominated by Him. This same word (peleroo) means more than this godless society is in the strong grip of unrighteousness and cannot escape. They are under the dominant control of these wicked ills. They are not casual partakers of evils, but those under its power.

 

Section One: Sinfulness

The first section consists of the four initial words clustered together. Paul writes, they are “being filled with all unrighteousness.” The word “all” means unrighteousness at every level. This first designation is like the topic sentence in a paragraph that describes all that follows. The word “unrighteousness” (adikia) means ‘violating a law, a departure from a standard.’ This word was used earlier, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (1:18). Ungodliness is the internal attitude, unrighteousness is the external action. Ungodliness is any irreverence towards God, where unrighteousness is any lawless behavior before Him.

 

Paul next addresses “wickedness” (poneria), which means ‘evil plots and purposes.’ This describes the scheming by evil men to commit their deeds of wickedness. They do not wait for sin to come to them. They initiate plots to commit sin. Next is “greed” (pleonexia), which is ‘an evil desire for more.’ They have a total lack of contentment with what they have in life. No matter where they are in society, they are restless to grab for more of this world. Feeding this craving for more is envy. They must always have more.

 

Completing this first section is “evil” (kakia), which means ‘a desire to injure others.’ They harm others in order to get what they want. They run over people to work their way up the ladder. They step on people in order to fulfill their greed. These sins are like links in one chain, each interconnected with the other, each being pulled forward by the previous sin.

 

Section Two: Sinful Pursuits

The second part of this list starts with “full of” (mestos), meaning that their sin is full to overflowing. Like pouring water into a cup until it is overflowing, their depraved hearts cannot contain the rising evil that fills it. The first evil that fills the heart is “envy” (phthonos), which means ‘jealousy and wishing ill will.’ It is desiring that others not have what good they do have. Instead, they want what others have. It is the desire to injure others in order to obtain what they have. This does not describe merely one person, but a whole society of people who are filled with envy. This pictures the mass chaos of a society, where the masses are jealous of what others have.

 

The next evil is “murder” (phonos), which represents persons who are willing to kill in order to steal from others. This person is willing to take the life of someone else, who prevents them from having what they want. A mother would be willing to kill her own baby in the womb just to keep her job and make more money. This is followed by the sin of “strife” (eris), which means ‘contention, quarreling, arguing, bickering.’ Such a person will fight anyone to achieve what they want. This embattled spirit is followed by “deceit” (dolos), which means ‘trickery.’ These individuals are willing to lie to whoever so that they can acquire what they want. The last sin in this second section is “malice” (kakoetheia), which speaks of the malignant hatred that is foaming up inside of them.

 

Section Three: Sinful Practices 

The third section begins by stating that these God-rejectors are “gossips” (psithyristes). That is, they are, literally, whisperers. They secretly murmur in hushed tones behind the backs of others. This pictures a clandestine conspiracy that is conceived in darkness. There is perverse plotting and sinister contriving behind the scenes for evil purposes. Nothing is out in the open, but depravity lurks unseen. They are “slanderers” (katalalos), which are those who defame others. The root of this evil is found in the next descriptive. They are “haters of God.” These who have rejected God do so because they hate Him. This sin is number twelve in this list of twenty-one evils, standing in the middle position. The heart of their problems is the problem of their hearts.

 

Further, these same people are “insolent” (hybristes), which describes those who are ‘lifted up with pride.’ It portrays ‘a verbal attacker heaping insults on others.’ This is a prideful person who degrades them with insults. Also included among these are the “arrogant” (hyperephanos). This refers to those who ‘raise yourself up above others.’ Such an egotistical person possesses an overwhelming sense of self-importance. This pompous person is like a peacock strutting to hell. They are smiting their breast and pontificating about their own greatness with no regard for the well being of others.

 

When it seems that this could not be any darker, this society sinks yet lower. They are described as being “inventors of evil.” This is to say, they concoct new forms of wickedness that earlier would have been totally unimaginable. It is inconceivable what baser evils could be devised by reprobate men, but they invent new categories of sin that did not previously exist. Pushing the boundaries further than they have ever gone, they invent a whole new stratosphere of sin than had been previously known.

 

Next, Paul writes they are “disobedient to parents.” This sin of child rebellion was so serious in the Old Testament that it required the death penalty. They have no regard for authority, and this lawlessness begins in the home. Submission to authority must be learned at home, but here it does not. When obedience by children to their parents is gone, a society is set on a course of anarchy that knows no limits. Where there is no regard for one’s parents, this moral breakdown leads to disregard for the civil or criminal law. There is no respect for any institutional authority in the classroom, the workplace, and government. They become like lawless gang members with no compliance for any authority. Here every man is doing what is right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25) and is willing to kill others to get their own way. 

 

Section Four: Sinful Perversions

The fourth category of this moral decline begins in verse 31, and each of these descriptions start with the same prefix a, which is translated into English as “un.” The first result of God’s judgment is they are “without understanding” (asynetos). That is to say, they are without any intelligent thought concerning God or morality. This renders them incapable of any decision-making. They have no comprehension who God is, what His moral law is, or what any common decency is. They do not understand the truth of God at even the most basic level. Their consciences are seared as with a hot iron. Right and wrong are indistinguishable to them.

 

The next aspect of this corrupt culture is “untrustworthy” (asynthetos), which means ‘covenant breakers.’ Their pledge to do something no longer means what they say. They think nothing to break their marriage vows or a business contract whenever it is to their own advantage. They are a people without any principle, doing whatever is most expedient to fulfill their selfish desires. Lastly, Paul writes they are “unloving” (astorgos) and “unmerciful” (aneleemon). The idea is that there is no compassion for those who are in need. Their only desire is self-gratification, while having no regard for the good of others. This is the inevitable result of their rejecting God.

 

This has been the moral decline of countless societies and empires, whether it be Sodom and Gomorrah or the Roman Empire. Even so, it is happening before our eyes today, yet with lower descents into depravity. Any civilization that rejects God will not long survive, but will self-implode from within. These are the telltale signs of the death of any godless society. We are currently living in the midst of it, up to our nostrils.

 

IV. Society’s rebellion against god (1:32)

 

As this section concludes, Paul reinforces the final mark of those who reject God and, in turn, are abandoned by Him. The apostle reaches the bottom of the barrel as he now writes, “and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (verse 32). The apostle reiterates the fundamental reason why they are given over by God to lives of greater sin. Even though they “know the ordinance of God,” referring to the moral law of God, they, nevertheless, continue to reject it in order to live for sin. Romans 2:14-15 says that God has written the moral law upon their hearts. The conscience of every person bears witness within them concerning what is right and wrong. It is like a built-in alarm that informs them of what is pleasing to God and what is not. It tells them when they have crossed the line established by God and entered into forbidden territory.

 

But in this case, even though they know the law of God, their conscience no longer restrains their evil. Unchecked and unbridled, they “practice such things” as a sinful lifestyle. Thus, they “are worthy of death” (verse 32). This death is the second death, which is eternal death in hell. Not only do they commit such sins, but they “give hearty approval to those who practice them.” At this low point, society is now so deviant that they applaud these debaucheries. These shameful acts are no longer hidden in the closet, but are strutting down main street for all to see. They are proud and defiant in their evil ways. This flagrant immorality causes television ratings to soar. To produce and promote such wickedness is good business. It sells more copy and expands their viewing audience, because this is what corrupt people want. This depravity only increases, because the collective society is giving its “hearty approval.”

 

This is the downward trajectory on which we find the world in this present hour. Our decaying societies are on the slippery slope, descending into the flames of hell. Our nation is nearing the bottom of immorality. There is only one hope to pull out of this death spiral. It is what Paul declared in Romans 1:16. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe.” We cannot change the culture by petitioning city hall. We cannot change the downward plunge of society by lobbying our politicians. We cannot hope to change the day by merely voting in certain candidates into office. We should do all we can to influence the civil process toward common decency. But legislation is not going to change the deceitful hearts of people. Only the power of God unleashed through the working of the gospel can explode in lives and reverse this downward course.

 

Conclusion

We must be sobered by this divine abandonment. We must have the realization of what is going on in our world today. We must have a Christian worldview and see what is transpiring around us with the mind of Christ. We cannot do everything, but what we can do we must do. And what we must do, let us purpose to do. We must do all that we can to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through our churches, Bible studies, and personal witnessing, we must work through every means possible. We must give resources, books, and tracks to people in need of the Lord. We must get the word of God out, however we can. This task of world evangelization is beyond any one of us. But we must do what we can do. We cannot sit back passively while people around us are perishing.

 

God has always worked through a remnant in any nation. God works through the few to affect the many. That way God receives the glory, when He works through a handful of disciples to alter the course of history.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.