The Lie That Leads to Destruction – Romans 1:24-25
By: Alistair Brown
Twice I had called on the Collins family at the time they were expecting me but got no reply. That was strange. The church had contact with the family because the children came to Sunday School. I’d visited the home, and been warmly received by the parents. I’d spoken with them about the gospel, they’d seemed interested to know more about faith in Christ, so there had been several more visits. But then came the two times when the door wasn’t answered. It made me think that maybe the reason had nothing to do with timing.
One day I called when they were not expecting me, and this time the door was opened. Mrs. Collins looked embarrassed to see me there, so I helped her out by asking if she and her husband would prefer me not to visit any more. Reluctantly she said ‘yes’ – that they were grateful for my interest and what I had told them of the gospel, but it wasn’t for them.
We said goodbye to each other, and I left. And as I walked to my car there were tears in my eyes and deep sadness in my heart. Mr. and Mrs. Collins were not saying ‘no’ to me but ‘no’ to God and the gospel. They could do that, but the consequences for all eternity would be dreadful.
Paul has begun to outline to the Romans the dreadful consequences for those who reject God and suppress the truth. They’re shutting God out from every part of their lives. Actually, they’re doing more than that. They aren’t just rejecting God, they’re embracing the alternative and worshiping self-made idols. And, Paul now explains, there are consequences.
In the next verses he gets more specific about those consequences. Three times in five verses he uses the phrase “God gave them over…” (vs. 24, 26, 28), and he leaves nothing hidden about how awful it is to have stepped away from God.
We begin with Romans 1:24-25:
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
There is almost nothing pleasant in these verses. These are not happy, memory verses we teach to little children. But if we censor ourselves from reading the toughest of passages we exclude the toughest of messages. And we need them. Paul outlines very sobering realities for those who turn away from God, and then puts in a short doxology – a praise statement to God – right at the end of verse 25, as if to counterbalance the dreadfulness of the other things he has to write.
He has three messages.
1. Those who are determined to turn from God, God releases to their own folly.
The parable of the lost son is about a boy who asked his father for his inheritance right away, took the money and squandered it in a distant country. One of the most remarkable things in that story is right at the start: the father let him take his money and go. He could have refused but he didn’t. The father allowed his son his choice. He let his son experience what he wanted which, in that story, showed the son the emptiness and misery of self-indulgence (Luke 15).
Likewise, Paul says God gives people over to their own sinful desires. God could stop them. He could make it impossible for them to do wrong. But he didn’t do that for Adam or Eve in the Garden of Eden, nor has he done it since. Letting people go is no failure of love. It’s exactly what love must do for love will not imprison.
But Paul’s words are actually stronger than just ‘letting people go.’ It’s as if God had held people back from the magnetism of sin but eventually released them to the sin they wanted. They were determined to refuse him. They wanted to worship anyone and anything other than the true God, and God gave them their wish. One writer says God ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river.
God ultimately allows people to have what they want. What they want is dreadful, destructive and dangerous. But people who persistently choose evil are granted evil.
This is a sobering message.
News stories report occasions when a rich kid is arrested. Maybe it’s a drug offence, and not the first time for that bad boy. But Dad or Mom bails him out, hires the smartest attorney in town, and he’s acquitted. Rich kid comes to rely on it. “Dad will fix anything I do,” he boasts to his friends. So his behavior never changes.
Through history people have sinned without thought of any consequence because God will always fix it. He’ll pardon them. He’ll rescue them. He’ll tidy up the mess and still let them into heaven.
Paul’s message to these people is: “You’re wrong. Go against God and keep going against God and he will give you that sinful, miserable, experience of degradation you seek.”
God will release his restraints and hand people over to their own folly.
2. Without God, people descend into a moral pit.
What Paul saw was that when there is no restraint people degenerate to the lowest level of moral standards: “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (vs. 24-25).
Paul describes sexual immorality and idolatry. These are not two separate subjects because they’re linked. The second explains the first. The impurity he’s describing here is sex as part of idol worship.
Cultic prostitution – buying sex as part of worship in pagan cults – was notoriously common throughout the ancient world.
The logic behind it was this. Nature shows constant signs of new life: animals, birds and fish have young; the fields give birth to new crops each season. Farmers, fishermen, and hunters were very aware of their dependence on that cycle. They knew that human birth resulted from sexual relations, so surely new birth in nature depended on their nature gods having sex. Therefore the conclusion: use worship to remind your deities what to do. Your sexual activity will encourage their sexual activity. Hence sex with prostitutes became normal within pagan cults.
There was no doubt many believed that. There is also no doubt many simply used worshiping a deity as a convenient excuse to indulge very base sexual instincts.
Athens, Corinth and most major cities around the Mediterranean were riddled with debauchery as part of pagan worship. Paul saw it all around him. People would wrestle themselves free of God’s grasp – and like someone who begins to slip down a slope, gathering speed and plummeting into the deepest and darkest valley – so these pagan worshipers were led by the sinful desires of their hearts to degrade their bodies with one another. Instead of sex being beautiful and up-building within marriage, they had reduced it to brutish self-indulgence with prostitutes as part of their worship of false gods.
3. What they choose instead of God is the lie above all lies.
They gave up God for idols. It was the worst of deals any person could make.
Paul’s words are: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (v. 25).
Paul actually wrote that they exchanged the truth for the lie. The worst abandonment of truth humans could devise is to worship things that are made rather than the one who made everything. To bow down before the work of human hands and reject the maker of heaven and earth is the ultimate deception, the lie above all other lies. There is not a shred of merit in that choice. Everything about it is folly and falsehood.
People often make bad choices:
- Some lose their marriages because they always prioritized their careers…
- Some lose their health because they were too much in love with alcohol or food…
- Some lose their moral balance because they become preoccupied with pornography…
- Some lose their children because they thought it mattered so much to be on ten different committees, perhaps some related to their church…
Bad choices happen when things of first importance are sacrificed on the altar of things of lesser or no importance.
But to sacrifice their relationship with God on the altar of idol worship and its destructive and degrading sexual practices is, for Paul, the very worst of all bad choices.
God – who is love, grace, truth – seeks fellowship with all those he had made. To reject this great and good God for an idol is no bargain. It’s choosing the lie above all lies.
The Old Testament prophecy of Hosea includes a lament over the stubbornness of the Israelites. Some took their rebellion too far. Hosea says: “Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone!” (Hos. 4:17)
How dreadful. To so reject the living God and so align yourself with false gods that you are seen to have gone beyond reach is the most tragic verdict that could be pronounced on any person. “Leave him alone.”
Those words need never be said.
The person sliding down the slope to their own destruction could have stayed on the path. Or, if they were stumbling, they could have held someone’s hand or even roped themselves to a companion. Life as a Christian is not easy. It’s not true that a prayer in the morning and a smiling face through the day makes all troubles go away. We struggle and often we fail.
But God is never absent, and God’s church is there to surround, help and heal those who struggle.
The danger? The danger is not caring or, even worse, to be so determined to go your own way, make your own choices, that we turn from God and turn from God’s people and accept whatever comes.
‘Whatever comes’ is nothing good. The far country seemed attractive to the prodigal son, but its pleasures were all a lie. Gratification was fleeting and left only emptiness and spiritual and relational starvation.
What Paul writes in Romans 1:24-25 is not happy. But it is important so we never find ourselves exchanging the truth about God for the lie that leads to destruction.
 F. Godet in R.H. Mounce, Romans, Vol. 27 (Nashville, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 80.