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What Does “God Gave Them Over” Mean? A Study in Divine Retribution by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson

02 Jun

 An Exegetical Study of Romans 1:18-32

Preaching to his Sunday congregation in Bern, Switzerland, at the Münster on Romans 1:18–32, Walter Lüthi said, “In the words that we have just read we are told the whole truth about our condition. There may well be people among us who cannot bear to hear the truth, and would like to creep quietly away out of this church. Let them do so if they wish” (Walter Lüthi, The Letter to the Romans: An Exposition, trans. by Kurt Schoenenberger. Richmond, Va, 1961, p. 19). There is much justification for Lüthi’s words, for Paul’s canvas upon which he has painted his picture—dark, foreboding, threatening, flashing with lightning and crashing with thunder—is crammed with forms and figures, fights and shadows, of sin, wrath, and judgment. And the revelation of wrath is total and complete, encompassing all and rendering all without excuse and under condemnation, both individually and collectively.

Isaiah has spoken of judgment as God’s “strange work” and His “strange act”  (cf. Isa 28:21 – There is nothing unusual about the Hebrew adjectives, translated “strange” in the AV, except perhaps their emphatic position. That is their meaning. The NASB has “unusual” and “extraordinary.”), and the idea that it is strange because contrary to His goodness and grace, while a popular contemporary misunderstanding of his words, is not only out of harmony with the context of Isaiah 28:21, but it also does not agree with the total picture of the being and attributes of God in Scripture. His retributive justice is one of His essential properties, and in this passage in Romans it comes to the center of the stage. In the threefold paredōken (AV, “gave up”; vv. 24, 26, 28) the problem is plainly before the reader. It is the purpose of this article to analyze and, if possible, clarify the meaning of the term, setting it within the context of the theology of the being and attributes of God. But, first, a word regarding the flow of the Pauline thought in this section of the letter.

After having introduced this message to the Romans (cf. 1:1–7) and stated his theme, the gospel (1:16–17), the apostle skillfully and in detail develops the case-history of human sin and condemnation (1:18–3:20). The section moves from the declaration of Gentile sin (1:18–32 – Martin prefers to define the subjects as “the Greek religious type, man without special revelation,” but the sense is the same. Cf. James P. Martin, “The Kerygma of Romans,” Interpretation, XXV, July, 1971, 311) through Jewish sin (2:1—3:8) to the climax of the apostolic diagnosis that “all the world” is guilty, with every mouth stopped, speechless in the terror of condemnation before a holy and righteous God (3:9–20).

In the immediate context Paul, in his endeavor to prove that the only righteousness available to man is that obtained by faith, declared that God’s displeasure toward sin has been revealed from heaven (1:18). It follows, of course, that all who are charged with ungodliness or unrighteousness stand under His wrath and cannot obtain acceptance before God by their character or conduct. That the Gentiles are guilty and, therefore, inexcusable is evident, because they have enjoyed a revelation of God’s eternal power and deity and yet have rejected it (1:19–20 – Notitia and assensus, two of the basic elements of faith, may be present as a result of God’s revelation of Himself in nature, but the vital element of faith, fiducia, is never given through natural revelation. In its place is the rebellion of suppression. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, in The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XX, 2 vols.; Philadelphia, 1960; T. H. L. Parker, Calvins Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Grand Rapids, 1959; Edward A. Dowey, Jr., The Knowledge of God in Calvins Theology. New York and London, 1965. A recent article of some worth by Gerald J. Postema is “Calvin’s Alleged Rejection of Natural Revelation,” Scottish Journal of Theology, XXIV, November, 1971, 423–34.).  And not only have they rejected the light of this truth, they have given themselves up to idolatry (1:21–23). The Pauline picture of the religious history of mankind is one of retrogression, not progression, of devolution, not evolution, downward, not upward. In unbelief man has passed from light to futility to folly. Thus, the divine wrath has found its justification in human rejection of “the truth of God” (1:18, 25).

There remains, therefore, only one alternative for God and man, divine retribution, and it is this that the apostle so solemnly, and yet vigorously (Godet thinks there is more than vigor here; there is a feeling of indignation. He writes, “The verses have something of that παροξυσμός, that exasperation of heart, of which the author of the Acts speaks xvii.16 when describing Paul’s impressions during his stay at Athens” F. Godet, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. by A. Cusin [2 vols.; Edinburgh, 1881], I, 177), proclaims in the final section of chapter one (1:24–32). The dio (AV, “wherefore”) makes the connection. In the light of the rebellion just described the inference of vindicatory justice is drawn. Sin justly brings judgment (The Byzantine text and some of the leading representatives of the Western text have a καί, AV, “also” following διό. If this were genuine, it would suggest the harmony of the nature of the punishment and the offence. Godet has put it well, “They sinned, wherefore God punished them; they sinned by degrading God, wherefore also God degraded them,” I, 177. Zahn appears to incline towards its genuineness, too. Cf. Theodor Zahn, Der Brief des Paulus an die Römer. Leipzig, 1910, p. 96.), a judgment expressed most clearly in the following three verses of this final section of chapter one.

The Biblical Revelation

Verse 24 – Wherefore God gave them over (Gr., paredōken) in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them.

Verse 26 – For this reason God gave them over (Gr., paredōken) to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for the unnatural.

Verse 28 And just as they did not see fit to retain the full knowledge of God, God gave them over (Gr., paredōken) to a depraved mind, to do the things which are not proper (Rom 1:24, 26, 28).

The Interpretation of the Revelation

The essence, the heart, the Leit Motif of the passage and the divine judgment is expressed in the threefold paredōken (AV, “gave up,” vv. 24, 26; “gave over,” v. 28), repeated as a terrifying refrain (Cf. M.J. Lagrange, Saint Paul Épître aux Romains (4th ed.; Paris, 1930, p. 28. He remarks that the term’s threefold occurrence is not climactic, but is a kind of refrain.).  It is a term over which there has raged considerable debate, and it is to the elucidation of it that this article is addressed. Generally speaking, there are three contending viewpoints.

First, perhaps the favorite interpretation of the term is that has prevailed since the time of Origen and Chrysostom, in which the paredōken is taken in the permissive sense. According to this view God passively permitted men to fall into the retributive consequences of their infidelity and apostasy. The active force of paredōken is surely contrary to this view. It is not that God permitted rebellious men to fall into uncleanness and bodily dishonor; He actively, although justly in view of their sin, consigned them to the consequences of their acts. It is His divine arrangement that men by their apostasy should fall into moral impurity, sin being punished by further sin, and He himself maintains the moral connection between apostasy and impurity by carrying out the judgment Himself (Cf. Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistle to the Romans, trans. by John C. Moore from 5th German ed. 2 vols.; Edinburgh, 1881, I, 86).

Second, another popular view, which became current after the time of Augustine, takes the paredōken in the privative sense. According to this interpretation God deprived man of an aspect of His work of common grace. He withdrew His hand that had restrained men from evil. Godet has expressed and illustrated this interpretation about as well as it can be set forth. “Wherein did His action consist?” he asks. And the answer follows, “He positively withdrew His hand; He ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river. This is the meaning of the term used by the apostle, Acts xiv.16 : ‘He suffered the Gentiles to walk in their own ways,’ by not doing for them what He never ceased to do for His own people. It is not a case of simple abstention, it is the positive withdrawal of a force” (Godet, I).

At bottom this view is the practical equivalent of the permissive view. This is evident from the fact that Godet uses Acts 14:16 as illustrative of the sense. However, in that passage the verb used is eiasen (AV, “suffered”), which normally means simply to permit. As Meyer pointed out a long time ago, “Therefore Chrysostom not only explains it by εασεν, but illustrates the matter by the instance of a general who leaves his soldiers in the battle, and thus deprives them of his aid, and abandons them to the enemy. Theodoret explains it: τς οκείας προμηδείαςγύμνωσε  (The clause may be translated, he stripped [them] of his own), and employs the comparison of an abandoned vessel. Theophylact illustrates the παρέδωκεν by the example of a physician who gives up a refractory patient (παραδίδωσιν ατν τ π πλέον νοσεν – The words may be rendered, he delivers him over for further suffering” – Meyer, I). These illustrations express quite well the privative view, but the Pauline language is stronger than this. The expression, “God gave them up to uncleanness,” describes a judicial act, (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans 2 vols.; Grand Rapids, 1959),  a “judicial abandonment” (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Philadelphia, 1886, p. 40). The active force of paredōken must not be glossed over (Cf. Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Römer. 11th ed.; Göttingen 1957, p. 58; Zahn, pp. 96-97. Both point out that Paul’s expression must not be weakened, but neither develops the question theologically).

Therefore, finally, it becomes clear that the term must be given a judicial sense (Schlatter points out that παρέδωκεν is the usual word for the sentence of a judge. Cf. A. Schlatter, Gottes Gerechtigkeit. Stuttgart, 1959, p. 66).  The meaning is not simply that God withdrew from the wicked the restraining force of His providence and common grace, although that privative sense is included in the judicial sense, but that He positively gave men over to the judgment of “more intensified and aggravated cultivation of the lusts of their own hearts with the result that they reap for themselves a correspondingly greater toll of retributive vengeance” (Murray). The usage of the word in both this epistle (4:25; 6:17; 8:32) and in the other Pauline Epistles (cf. 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20) supports this force (See Friedrich Büchsel, “δίδωμι et al.,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, II Grand Rapids, 1964, 170. The positive force is present in each occurrence). The interpretation is also in harmony with the occurrence of the precisely identical form in Acts 7:42, where, in speaking of Israel’s apostasy in the days of Moses, Stephen says, “Then God turned, and gave them up (Gr., paredōken) to worship the host of heaven.” Both the Romans and the Acts passages describe the act of God as a penal infliction of retribution, the expression of an essential attribute of God’s nature and being, and it is thoroughly consistent with His holiness.

There is another striking occurrence of the identical form of the verb in Ephesians 4:19, and that passage serves to remind the interpreter that the infliction of punitive justice does not compromise the free agency and responsibility of man. In that passage Paul, speaking of the sin of the Gentiles, writes, “Who being past feeling have given themselves over (Gr., paredōken) unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.” In the midst of the retributive action of God there is no coercion of man. God does not entice or compel to evil.  Man remains responsible and can even be said to be giving himself over to uncleanness while God gives him up to the judgment of his sin.

Concluding Questions

There is hardly any passage in the Bible that says plainer than this one that moral depravity is the result of the judgment of God. And this raises an interesting question that concerns the present moral condition of the nations of the world, and particularly of the United States of America. The question is this: What is the real significance of the spread of immorality, crime, and violence in western civilization? To compound the problem, the newspapers are filled with stories of clergymen encouraging sexual license. Many Christian ministers, contrary to the Apostle Paul’s teaching, no longer regard homosexuality and other sexual aberrations as a sin. It is rather a sickness, or a weakness. In an article in one of the national news magazines a few years ago homosexuality was referred to by the author as “an undesirable handicap” (“Homosexuality,” Time, October 24, 1969, p. 82). To many today it is nothing more than a deviation from the customary sexual patterns, a third sex. Occasionally, in what must seem to the Christian the ultimate evil, homosexuality is traced to God Himself, for, it is said, He made men and women what they are (Of course, the truth of the matter is that homosexuality is a perversion of the created order. Cf. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. New York, 1957, p. 39).

Some thirty years ago the famous Harvard sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, in his book The Crisis of Our Age, warned that increases in crime, suicides, mental breakdowns, revolutions, and war have been symptoms of civilizations in the midst of death pangs. In another article on homosexuals in Time magazine the author wrote, “At their fullest flowering, the Persian, Greek, Roman and Moslem civilizations permitted a measure of homosexuality; as they decayed, it became more prevalent” (“The Homosexual: Newly Visible, Newly Understood,” Time, October 31, 1969, p. 65).  Later Sorokin in his The American Sex Revolution pointed out that sex anarchy leads to mental breakdowns, rather than the other way around, as the Freudian psychologists have taught (Cf. I. E. Howard, “The Fever Chart of a Sick Society,” Christian Economics, April 6, 1965, p. 4. Howard’s brief article is very suggestive, and the writer is deeply indebted to it).  Further, he pointed out that increasing sexual license leads to decreasing creativity and productivity in the intellectual, artistic, and economic spheres of life. What, then, are the sources of the problems of the present age? As Howard indicates, “Spengler had a biological answer: civilizations grow old and die like any other living thing. Toynbee has a religious answer: civilizations fail to respond to the higher challenges of the Spirit and therefore fossilize. In his Civilization and Ethics, Albert Schweitzer tried to find an ethical answer. St. Paul had still a different answer” (ibid).

The Pauline answer is plain, and Romans 1:24 expresses it most impressively and succinctly. When man rebelled and sinned, God “gave them up” to uncleanness in the lusts of their hearts that by their own activities their bodies might be dishonored. In other words, sexual rebellion, license, and anarchy is the retributive judgment of God. The civilization of the western world, including the particular civilization of the United States of America, is not a civilization in danger of contracting a fatal disease. That civilization has already contracted a malignant and fatal cancer through its unbelief of the message of God in Christ. It is now hurrying on with increasing speed to final climactic destruction. Civilizations do not die because of violence, crime, immorality, and anarchy. These things are the evidences that death already is at work, a death brought on by disobedience to the revelation of God. Charles Hodge was referring to these principles when he said, almost one hundred years ago in reference to the Christian body of truth, “Religion is the only true foundation, and the only effectual safeguard for morality. Those who abandon God, He abandons. Irreligion and immorality. therefore, have ever been found inseparably connected” (Hodge).

It should be carefully noted that the apostle is not speaking of eternal punishment in these three verses. What he has specifically in mind is a judgment that pertains to this life, not to the life to come. But, on the other hand, it is also plain that Paul’s words lead on to the doctrine of everlasting torment (cf. v. 32 – Cf. Barrett, p. 38. He writes, “God’s judgment has already broken forth; only he has consigned sinners not to hell but to sin—if indeed these be alternatives.”).  The vindicatory judgment inflicted by God is continued in the life to come in a more terrible and permanent form if the escape through the gospel of the cross is neglected. The doctrine of eternal punishment has never been popular, and it is less so now. Even evangelical seminaries seem embarrassed by it.27  There is an old story about Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson that contains solemn truth. When the latter once appeared over fearful as to his future, Boswell said, “Think of the mercy of your Savior.” “Sir,” replied Johnson. “my Savior has said that He will place some on his right hand, and some on his left.”

It is doubtful that there is a doctrine in the Bible easier to prove than that of eternal punishment (cf. Matt 25:46 – The twofold use of the adjective aiōnion AV, “everlasting” and “eternal” with kolasin, AV, “punishment” and zōēn, AV, “life” indicates that the punishment for sin is just as long as the life that God gives the faithful. Both are eternal. Many other passages express the same truth), a fact that reminds one of an incident involving Henry Ward Beecher and William G. T. Shedd, both eminent leaders of their day. The North American Review engaged the two men for articles on the subject of eternal punishment, knowing the views of the two men. Beecher had once commented, “I believe that punishment exists, both here and hereafter; but it will not continue after it ceases to do good. With a God who could give pain for pain’s sake, this world would go out like a candle.” Shedd was asked to write an article supporting the doctrine, and Beecher was asked to answer it. When the proof sheets of Shedd’s article were sent to Beecher he telegraphed from Denver to the magazine’s editors, “Cancel engagement. Shedd is too much for me. I half believe in eternal punishment now myself. Get somebody else.” The reply was never written by anyone. Shedd remained unanswered (Cf. Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology. rev. ed.; 3 vols.; Philadelphia, 1907, III, 1052–53). There is no answer, biblically, logically, or philosophically to the doctrine of eternal punishment.

There is a final question that one might ask regarding Romans 1:24 and its declaration of divine retribution. When did the retribution occur? When did God “give up” the nations? Is the apostle referring to a specific event or time in the past, or is he simply interpreting broadly man’s history? In the collective sense the rebellion of men against God had its inception at Babylon, and it has been surmised that Paul may have had in mind the construction of the tower of Babylon and its destruction, with man’s scattering, by God (cf. Gen 11:1–9). It is doubtful that Paul had this in mind. On the other hand, there are two things that point to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden as the event the apostle was thinking about. In the first place, the fact that Paul traces the entrance of sin into the human race specifically to Eden in Romans 5:12 suggests that 1:24 is to be understood in the light of that important event. It was there that man rebelled against light, the light of both natural and special revelation, and turned to darkness. And it was there that judgment was inflicted on account of his sin, a judgment that consisted of wrath and death, accompanied by consequent immorality and wickedness, as history indicates.

In the second place, the terminology of verse 22–23 points fairly clearly to the Genesis account. For example, the phrases “to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (v. 23) is surely reminiscent of “the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Gen 1:26; cf. vv. 20–25). And, further, the phrases “the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image (lit., the likeness of an image) made like to corruptible man” appear to come from the Genesis account’s “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26). It thus seems that Paul was thinking of the Genesis record in the Romans passage, and this would support the view that he regarded God’s giving up of man to uncleanness as occurring at the time of the fall, recorded in the early part of that same Genesis record.  There, then, man fell into sin, judgment, and condemnation, with their inevitable companion, the retributive justice of immorality, crime, and all manner of evil.

In conclusion, one must conclude from Romans 1:24, 26 and 28 that retributive justice is an attribute of the living God and a necessary feature of His actions toward unbelieving man. To the question, “Can God really give man up to judgment?,” this passage provides a resounding “yes” answer. But, in fact, it is not the final and convincing answer to the question. That comes from the cross of Jesus Christ, which in the cry it elicits from our Lord, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” unmistakably affirms the fact that God can give man up to judgment. It was there that the sinless Man bore the judgment of God upon sin, and it forever proclaims the true nature of sin—it is worthy of the penalty of spiritual and physical death—and God’s hatred of it with His necessary condemnation of it.

One might say, “Does God, then, really care?” The answer to this question also is obvious, and it, too, comes from the cross. It was God who gave the Son as the vicarious sacrifice; it was He who initiated the work that produced the remedy for sin and condemnation. And it was the Son who voluntarily bore in agony the depths of the vindicatory judgment for sinners. And if that is not sufficient evidence of God’s love and concern, reflect further upon the fact that it is also He who has revealed to men their lost condition and the significance of the atoning death, inscribed its interpretation in the written Word of God and preserved that Word for countless millions to read and ponder. Isaiah was right. Although righteous and necessary, judgment is His “strange work” and His “strange act.”

Article above by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson adapted from Vol. 129: Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 129. 1972 (514) (123). Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary.

More About Dr. S. Lewis Johnson – A Tribute to Dr. S. Lewis Johnson
 by Fred G. Zaspel
 – January 30, 2004:

On January 28, 2004, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson passed away at age eighty-eight. He was a Biblical scholar and theologian of rare abilities and of international renown, and he was a beloved friend. His influence on my own ministry would be difficult to measure. The hundreds of tapes of his preaching and teaching have gone free of charge to thousands of people all over the world, and it was by means of these tapes that I first became acquainted with him. When he first came to preach for me I asked the congregation if any had previously heard him. No one had, but I was quick to assure them all that they had indeed heard him often! Over the years he came to speak at our church and at our pastors’ conference many times, and even in his latest years it was challenging and blessed to hear him expound the Word of God with such precision and clarity.

Dr. Johnson was born in Birmingham, AL and grew up in Charleston, SC. He was always quick to assure everyone that his smooth, dignified, and pleasant southern accent was actually “English in its pure form.” He graduated from the College of Charleston with an B.A. degree in 1937 and was converted through the teaching of Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse while in the insurance business in Birmingham. He left the insurance business in 1943 to enter Dallas Theological Seminary, from which he received the Th.M (1946) and Th.D. (1949) degrees. He completed further graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Southern Methodist University, and in the University of Basel. Remaining at Dallas Seminary Dr. Johnson was Professor of New Testament from 1950 to 1972 and Professor of Systematic Theology from 1972 to 1977. He later served as Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, and as Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Dr. Johnson preached and lectured in many places, large and small, taught countless home Bible studies, and was involved in starting several churches. In 1963 he and others planted Believers’ Chapel in Dallas, and it is from the Chapel that so many thousands of his tapes have gone to the benefit of countless people.

He was in so many ways a man to emulate. He was a true gentleman. He was always personable and a great delight in conversation. His humor was always good, and his wit was always quick. He was a careful student of the Scriptures with unusually superior abilities as an exegete and theologian. His abilities with the original languages were clearly superior, and when discussion began he would always lead from his Greek and Hebrew text. He was a man of conviction, willing to step down from a noted career rather than surrender his beliefs. He was passionate for the gospel, and his heart was always hot for Christ. He was a humble and godly man. I have said many times that if God would allow me to grow old as gracefully and as saintly as Dr. Johnson I would become proud and ruin it. He was a model scholar, a model teacher, a model preacher, a model friend, and a model Christian. He was that rare combination of so many abilities and virtues. I thank God for him and feel much the poorer without him.

Among his greatest passions was the faithful expounding of the nature of Christ’s atoning work. He clearly cherished any and every opportunity to demonstrate from the Scriptures the success and effectiveness of Christ’s death as a substitute for His people. And when it was his turn to listen, elderly though he was, he would sit right up front with his Greek and Hebrew Bible in hand. And though virtually every speaker he would hear would necessarily be a man of comparatively inferior abilities, he seemed always just to delight in hearing the Word of God preached. And afterwards he was always eager to fellowship with younger preachers and laymen alike and discuss the things of Christ and examine the Word of God together.

The last time I spoke with Dr. Johnson, about a month or so ago, it was evident that he was growing tired and frail. He fell ill earlier this month, but his illness was brief before the Lord took him home to glory. He leaves behind him his wonderful wife Martha whom we love dearly also, and our prayers are now for her. By his tape ministry I came to love Dr. S. Lewis Johnson before I ever knew him, and I count it a great blessing to have known him. Probably no one outside my own father has taught me more, and few could ever be more beloved. I praise the Lord for him.

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