Many good, church-going Christians probably know someone who needs to hear Romans 1:29-31 but think it has no bearing on them. Who wants to find themselves in the greatest hits of a debased mind? (Romans 1:28) These verses are not the type of normal morning quiet time devotions. However, Paul argues in Romans 1:18-3:20 that ungodliness is universal, and each of us is somewhere on this list. The primary person God is working on when you sit down and meditate on Romans 1:29-31 is you.
This passage, and others like it, are necessary for our good. They bring sins we may be unaware of or want to keep hidden up to the surface. God uses passages like Romans 1:29-31 to shine a light on our vices so that He can apply the gospel to us. He takes off the Band-aid, reveals the scab we do not want to see, and applies the balm of the gospel to heal us. Take a moment to pray before we meditate on this text and ask God to help you apply this passage to yourself before you think about applying it to others.
Consequences of Rejecting God
In Romans 1:29-31, Paul continues showing the results of rejecting God. Those who suppress what God reveals about himself (Romans 1:18-19) are given up to a “debased mind” (Romans 1:28). Their fantasy of a world not bound by God comes true, and the result is explosive. Every vice on Paul’s list results from pursuing a life without God and therefore hitting the self-destruct button.
We can separate the list of vices into three groups. The first group (unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, and malice) is quite general. The second group (envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness) gets more specific, showing the consequences of envy. The third group (gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless) lists specific vices which destroy any social order.
Notice that most of these vices relate to how we treat other people. Where there is no love for God, there will be no love for our neighbor. R. C. Sproul comments on this text, saying, “We cannot hate God and love our neighbor. Man’s interpersonal relationship, man’s co-humanity, is rooted and grounded ultimately in man’s commitment to God. If that vertical relationship is disturbed or destroyed, then it has radical repercussions on the horizontal level of human relationships.”
Apart from God’s gracious intervention, humanity would destroy itself. Gossip sows distrust, deceit spoils unity, and malice savours seeing others suffer. Those are just a few things on this list. Digging a little deeper, we see how connected the three groups of Paul’s list are. A coveting heart flows into an envious spirit, spilling over with ruthless gossip to bring down another person. Turning from God triggers a time bomb, denoting human relationships.
People can treat each other with almost unimaginable cruelty. Rejecting God results in a bloodier world, not a better world. Cain’s envy led to Abel’s murder (Gen 4). Saul had a heart full of pride and jealousy when he tried pinning David to the wall with his spear (1 Samuel 19:10). The “God is Dead” generation witnessed some of history’s most horrifying acts of violence.
The Vice in Me
You can also see it much closer to home and in more subtle ways. How many of us will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder at work, regardless of who we have to step on to reach the top? The human heart is very gifted in doing wicked things. When given free rein, it leaves behind a trail of bodies. That may be why Paul is so thorough in his list of vices. There is variety in how the human heart rejects God and bears the fruit of unrighteousness (Mark 7:21-23). All of us find a seat at this table.
If you examine the way, you treat others, which of these vices are you prone to? Outright rejection of God breaks the dam, but even subtle rejections, like making decisions without prayer, can cause cracks and leaks. My gut reaction to criticism is to defend myself and to discredit my critic. And yet receiving correction is part of maturing in Christ. Proverbs 13:1 says, “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” I need to receive correction to grow in Christ, and I need Jesus to help me not be ruthless in rebuking people who correct me.
Applying the Gospel
As he leads us to examine our hearts by considering these vices, God drives us to the gospel. As Paul applies the gospel to their lives, he exhorts the church in Rome to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). The gospel renews our hearts from malice to affection. To love others, we must receive and live in the love of Christ. The transformation from unrighteousness to righteousness is about finding our righteousness in Christ. Paul says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Ro 3:23–24).
As you sit with this passage, I pray that God would reveal where you struggle and would apply the gospel to you, so you grow in extending the love of God to your neighbor.