A Litany of Wickedness
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice … 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.”- Romans 1:29–31
Gentile sins are Paul’s focus in Romans 1:18–32, as seen in his references to the worship of idols and homosexuality (vv. 22–23, 26–27). The Jews of the first century were not known for those sins, so the Apostle contends that the gospel’s revelation of righteousness occurs against the backdrop of the nations’ rejection of Yahweh, the one true God and covenant Lord of Israel. However, not all Gentiles in the first-century Roman Empire worshiped graven images or engaged in homosexual acts. Some were God-fearers, Gentiles who were attracted to Jewish monotheism and ethics, and who followed the Lord of Israel except for being circumcised. There were also what we might call “virtuous pagans,” Gentiles who had no particular affection for Yahweh but were essentially monotheistic and strove to live ethically responsible lives. Since these two groups of Gentiles were not polytheists and did not engage in overly gross human behaviors, were they exempt from Paul’s condemnations?
No, the Apostle tells us in today’s passage; not being a rank polytheist or one who engages in profound sexual deviancy does not mean one is exempted from the charge of unrighteousness. Romans 1:29–32 gives the other ethical consequences that flow from humanity’s rejection of the God who is. We should not view this list as comprehensive; Paul does not give us every possible way that human beings can commit sin. However, the list is broad enough to cast the most negative light on the fallen human condition. No matter who we are or what we have done, all of us can find something on this list of which we are guilty. Some among the sons and daughters of Adam take their sins to the utmost conclusion in things such as murder and ruthlessness, while some merely gossip on occasion or mildly disobey their parents—transgressions that seem insignificant if we believe God grades on a curve. Either way, human beings outside the covenant community of Israel are in the worst predicament imaginable. In fact, Jews by birth are likewise in this awful state, as we will see in Romans 2–3. Today’s passage has Gentiles in mind primarily, but it ultimately describes the condition of everyone in Adam, namely, everyone who is not in Christ by faith alone.
Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary on Romans, “No one is merely mildly affected by error or bad habits or mistakes; man is saturated with unrighteousness.” The first truth of the gospel tells us that we cannot meet God’s standard—worse than that, it tells us that apart from grace, we do not even want to meet that standard (3:9–20).
Human beings continually think of themselves in a more favorable light than they should. Today’s passage, however, should disabuse us of that proclivity. Even the most “minor” sin is evidence that at a fundamental level, we do not want the Lord in our thinking or affections. Unless and until we are convinced of that truth, we will not see our need for the gospel and the fact that it is only by grace alone that we can be saved. Have you been convicted of your sin and your need for Christ?
Passages for Further Study
1 Peter 4:3