Paul, writing “to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people” (Romans 1:7), says that his purpose is to preach the gospel, for in it “the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (verse 17). He goes on to compare the righteous saints with the unrighteous Gentiles, upon whom the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven. He lists the works of the unrighteous who have incurred God’s wrath and then says that God “gave them over” to three things:
• “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them” (verse 24, NASB).
• “God gave them over to degrading passions” (verse 26, NASB).
• “God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (verse 28, NASB).
Of the most popular English versions in use today, only the New International Version and New American Standard Bible use the phrase God gave them over. Most modern Bible versions say, “God gave them up” (e.g., ESV, NKJV). The Greek word translated “gave over” or “gave up” means “surrendered, yielded up, entrusted, or transmitted.” In this context, it refers to the act of God completely abandoning the unrighteous. As the wicked deserted God, God in turn deserted them, no longer giving them divine direction or restraint, but allowing them to corrupt themselves as they wished. Because they would not honor Him, He let them do what they pleased to dishonor themselves. Being given over or yielded up to one’s sinful desires is a judgment from God.
Who was it that God gave over? The ungodly and unrighteous: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18). These are the godless and wicked, those who reject the truths that God makes plain to them about Himself. They know God exists, and they are “without excuse” in their active suppression of the truth (verse 20). They do not acknowledge or honor God, nor are they grateful to Him. Their thinking becomes futile; they cannot reason, and their hearts become dark, lacking the light of God (verse 21). They claim to be wise but are actually fools (verse 22). They worship the creature rather than God the Creator (verse 23).
What was it God gave them over to? Paul specifies three things to which God surrendered the wicked: 1) “To sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (verse 24). Giving their hearts’ sinful desires free rein, the wicked degraded themselves in sexual immorality. 2) “To shameful lusts” (verse 26). Both men and women abandoned the natural sexual functions and committed homosexual acts. 3) “To a depraved mind” (verse 28). The result is that “they do what ought not to be done.” The depraved mind without the light of God will naturally run to evil and, unless divinely checked, will work out the full extent of its depravity.
Why did God give them over? God “gave them over” to these things because of a choice they made to reject the knowledge of God in creation; to refuse to draw obvious conclusions from the evidence all around them of God’s existence and attributes; to decline to give God thanks; and to exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:23). All through history foolish men have attempted to bring God down to their level, portraying Him in various images and worshiping created things rather than the Creator. It’s a direct violation of the first two of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–5). Their minds rejected the proof they had of the divine nature, so, as a just punishment, God abandoned them to minds incapable of grasping the truth (Romans 1:19–20).
What’s the result of God’s having given them over? “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:29–32). In the outworking of the depravity of the human heart, the contrast between light and darkness become more apparent: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). As the Gentiles refused to keep God in their knowledge, they committed crimes against reason and against their own welfare, and God gave them over.
The sad fact is that sometimes God gives us what we want. God allowed the Israelites who rebelled to reap the natural consequences of their choice: “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (Psalm 81:11–12). In Romans 1, Paul shows how the wicked made a choice to reject God, and that choice set them on a downward spiral of increasing darkness and decreasing hope. As the godless run farther and farther from God, God intervenes less and less. The Spirit’s restraint of sin is a blessing, and if that restraint is removed, all wickedness follows.