In order that you and I may properly interpret and properly apply this portion of Scripture we must keep it in its proper context. Any portion of Scripture that is lifted out of its context becomes a pretext and can be twisted and made to say anything you want it to. If we end up with the wrong interpretation then we will also end up with the wrong application and then will have become guilty of twisting the Scriptures to our own destruction.
So to be sure that we don’t do that to this portion of Scripture let’s put it in its proper context: Here the apostle Paul was establishing the truth of why he preached the gospel and nothing but the gospel to every man. In chapter one of Romans, Paul was establishing the truth that all Gentiles everywhere are under sin and without excuse before a holy God and are rightly under God’s wrath. God has revealed the truth about Himself to all pagans both through conscience (1:19) and through creation (1:20) but because all men are ungodly and unrighteous, they suppress the truth that God has revealed in unrighteousness (1:18) and are therefore without excuse and rightly under condemnation.
This truth brings us to a dilemma: How can a holy God forgive sinners and remain holy and just? How can a God who is a God of strict justice; who is a God who will not and cannot lie; how can He release the guilty from the charges without lying? God tells us in His Word that He will not acquit the guilty (Exodus 23:7) and that He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:3). So do you see the dilemma: How can a holy God acquit the guilty without lying and while remaining holy and just?
There is only one answer to that dilemma: Penal Substitution – a totally innocent man who has never once sinned against God must be willing to pay the penalty of the guilty by receiving the punishment due the guilty so that God can forgive the guilty based on the truth that His Word has been upheld through punishing the substitute. This is the gospel – that Christ lived a perfect life and as a substitute for sinners was punished on their behalf so that God could offer a full and free pardon, demonstrating His grace, mercy, and love, while still remaining holy and just.
Since all men are rightly under the wrath of God and since God cannot and will not pardon them except on the basis of Penal Substitution – on the basis of the gospel – then Paul stated the truth that he was under a moral obligation to all men to preach to them this gospel (1:14) and that the gospel and the gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (1:16) and it is through the gospel – Penal Substitution – that God imputes His righteousness apart from the Law to the one who has faith in Jesus (1:17; 3:22-23).
So this is the context of Romans chapter one: Paul was under moral obligation to preach the gospel to all men because it and it alone is the remedy for the dilemma of how a holy God can forgive sinners and remain holy and just and because all men everywhere are sinners and are rightly under condemnation being without excuse. From 1:18 to 1:32 the apostle brought the charge that all men are sinners and then he gave the evidence to prove it. This is to establish the truth that all men need to hear the gospel if they are going to be saved – a truth that Paul will deal with more clearly in 10:9-17.
Now we will take into consideration 1:24-32 as the apostle unfolds the evidence of the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men everywhere who suppress the truth. We will see the root of the problem and the fruit of the problem.
First we will consider the root of the problem (1:21-25) – idolatry. This section does not teach evolution (that man started low and climbed high), but devolution; that man started high and because of sin he sank lower and lower. Idolatry in all of its forms is a suppression of the truth of God which He revealed about Himself. Therefore idolatry in all of its forms is a corruption of men’s proper relationship to God his Creator. In and through idolatry man doesn’t honor God, he doesn’t thank God, he doesn’t approve of God – but instead man sets his honor, thanks and approval on that which is not God and on that which God has condemned. All idolatry, not matter what form it takes, is an expression of a stubborn heart which absolutely refuses to receive the truth, love the truth, and obey the truth.
I want to give you at least three categories of idolatry so that you will be sure that you are not suppressing even this truth that God has given but will believe that at the root of the problem all men everywhere are idolaters: (1) idols made by hands (2) idols formed in the mind – god of your own liking and own imagination but not the true and living God (3) idols formed in the heart – god of substitution – love of self, love of money, love of pleasure.
So at the root of the problem is idolatry which is a result of suppressing the truth of God because of wrong attitudes. Therefore man does not properly relate to God by worshiping and serving Him and Him alone – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” is replaced by idolatry and worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator.
Wrong attitudes always lead to wrong actions and wrong belief always leads to wrong behavior. So now we will consider the fruit of the problem (1:24-32) – the evidence that man is under God’s wrath and judgment and therefore without excuse and in severe need of the gospel. If man doesn’t properly relate to God by loving, worshiping, and serving Him then neither is man going to properly relate to his fellow man – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” will not be fulfilled but will be violated over and over.
The first fruit of the root of idolatry is a defiled heart (1:24-25) – impurity. Because men suppressed the truth of God and exchanged the truth of God for a lie, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity – God gave them over to a defiled heart. Idolatry leads to all sorts of impurity. Many false religions – say, “Idolatries” – are based on sexual impurities. The Bible declares the truth that sexually impure people dishonor their own bodies – “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Many false religions/idolatries also dishonor their bodies through cutting, maiming, piercing, tattooing, or flaunting their bodies. Underlying the dishonoring of one’s body is the idolatrous attitude that my body is my own and no one is going to tell me what I can and cannot do with it. However, the Christian now knows better – “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Idolatry is at the root of impurity and impurity is one of the fruits of idolatry. In its essence idolatry is improper worship and improper service (1:25). In his sin and folly man turns from God to serve idols but in salvation the order is reversed and that which was lost is restored – man turns from idols to serve the living and true God – “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
The second fruit of the root of idolatry is degrading passions (1:26-27) – immorality (specifically homosexuality). Because of men’s suppression of the truth and their incessant idolatry and impurity, God gave them over to homosexuality – that which is against nature. The natural was exchanged for the unnatural and as a result of a defiled heart came degrading passions – do you see any evolution in this?
Here the Bible speaks of a burning desire and it means an inflamed, intense, burning desire for homosexual activity. The homosexual’s desire for his or her sin is so strong that he or she believes that God has made them this way. However, it is their idolatry and sin that has made them that way. In just the same way that God doesn’t make people into drug addicts but they make themselves into such, God doesn’t make people into homosexuals.
There are consequences to sin and some sins have both psychological and physical consequences. Just as the man who tampers with powerful mind altering drugs and after one use burns in his desire for more and more and the more he does the more he harms his own physical well-being so it is with the homosexual. He burns in his desire wanting more and more (he can’t help himself) and harms his own physical well-being. They receive in their own persons the due penalty of their error – an uncontrollable desire and the destruction of the body.
The third fruit of the root of idolatry is a depraved mind (1:28-32) – impropriety. Just when you thought that you might be off the hook and that God missed you in his incriminating evidence He nailed you to the wall with indisputable evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that you too are a guilty sinner in need of the gospel. These verses deal primarily with interpersonal relationships between men. We clearly see the violation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” so that we see that idolatry (breaking the first half of God’s commandments) leads inevitably to breaking the second half of God’s commandments. Idolatry is the root which causes the fruit of our disobedience to God to grow. Is there any hope? (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Penal Substitution – the gospel!