In his final moving words recorded for us in 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul exhorts his younger co-labourer to steadfastness in the face of great difficulties. He predicts that ‘in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’ (2 Timothy 3:2-4). The catalogue of sins he describes here depicts an unparalleled moral decadence.
As the end of the age approaches, there will be a fearful increase in wickedness and the megalomania that asserts human self-centredness will be evidenced in many different evil ways, as Paul’s list demonstrates.
This is not to say that everybody is as wicked as they possibly can be. Wicked men will display their ‘love’ in different ways and in varying degrees. However, the driving force in each case is invariably the love of self.
We know that the Lord Jesus Christ will judge such wickedness. When we think of judgment, our thoughts are naturally inclined to think of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the final judgment of this world. He speaks of a great Day of Judgment (Matthew 11:22-24; Matthew 25:31-46). However, the Scriptures also speak of God’s temporal judgments.
The ‘now’ of divine judgment
Some years before he exhorted Timothy, Paul wrote to the Romans. In chapter 1, verses 29–32, there is a similar catalogue depicting the moral decadence of the Gentile world. He was writing from Corinth, a notoriously wicked city, where he was familiar with their moral habits and practices, having previously lived and preached there for a period of about eighteen months (Acts 18:11).
In this passage in Romans, however, Paul is speaking of the present righteous judgment of God. He states that ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ (v. 18). The verb is in the present tense.
God is not indifferent to human behaviour and he is never a mere bystander. He is sovereign and deals with individuals and nations. He responds personally to human sin with a righteous intensity, which is his wrath. This wrath is not like human anger, full of sinful emotions. There is no spite, no malice, and no uncontrolled violence. It is his righteous indignation against all that is contrary to his holy character.
The passage goes on to tell us that such wrath is just; no one can raise a successful defence for what they have done. ‘What may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them’ (v. 19).
Judgment comes because of the sin of men and women who have set aside the glory of God: ‘Although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened’ (v. 21). They had become idolaters in their hearts and in their worship.
There are serious consequences resulting from such sinful behaviour which can be seen by the ‘therefore’ in verse 24. The ‘now’ of God’s judgment is emphatically underlined in the threefold use of the phrase ‘God gave them up’ (or ‘gave them over’). It rings in our ears like a tolling bell. It is a judicial term and is used in the past tense. It is something that God has already done, and the consequences of his action can be clearly seen among those who have been given over to their sins.
This passage helps to explain the moral problems that plague our nation today, with its moral decadence, distortions, confusions, and contradictions. What we see on every side is proof of what we are told here. The explanation lies in the present wrath of God demonstrated against sin and sinners.
Abandoned by God
When Scripture describes God as giving men up, it is saying that God is acting in righteous judgment. God does not leave men alone in their ungodliness and unrighteousness. That itself would be a judgment on their conduct. He also takes positive action. There is retribution. God gives men over to their sins. He ‘gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies among themselves’ (v. 24). He ‘gave them up to vile passions’ (v. 26). He ‘gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting’ (v. 28). Men are given over to what is utterly foreign to and subversive of God’s revealed will.
It is important to realise that when God does this, those on the receiving end are given up to continue in their already-existing moral decadence. There are no new, different sins introduced by God’s retribution. The religious degeneration whereby men abandon God is met with righteous retribution by God, and he abandons them to immorality and other sins which they are already committing. The uncleanness did not originate with God and with his actions.
Furthermore, there is a significant change that follows – what we might call a law of consequence. The sins committed are now intensified. They are aggravated. The ugliness and foulness of sin is now to be seen even more clearly than it was before. The previous restraints are removed and sin is, as it were, let loose.
There is a cycle of sin as part of divine wrath and punishment. ‘Men have exchanged the truth of God for a lie’ (v. 25) and so God gives men and women over to what they want, which is to devote themselves to their sinful lifestyle. Lovers of themselves and slaves to their vile lusts and sinful desires, they reap a terrible harvest – worse than they could ever imagine. Consequently they rub salt into their own wounds. Such is their love for sin that even though they know ‘the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, [they] not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them’ (v. 32).
The wickedness and horror of sin
This passage then describes the wickedness that is characteristic of those who are abandoned by God. Paul is describing not only the conduct of his peers in the Gentile world, but also the conduct that increasingly characterises the Western world.
He speaks of vile affections and of distorted sexual practices among men and women. The conduct Paul describes in verses 26–27 is vigorously defended and ardently promoted by some in our nation. Sexual immorality that is contrary to nature, contradicting and violating the laws of masculinity and femininity, is often described as something beautiful and something to be desired. In God’s eyes it is ugly and foul, and if the church speaks out against those views she is almost immediately condemned for being bigoted and falsely accused of being homophobic.
The list of unrighteousness makes terrifying reading: ‘sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful’ (vv. 29–30).
It is what the late Dr Lloyd-Jones called a ‘living hell’ – a precursor and microcosm of the final state of the damned, in which men and women live without any divine restraint. Hell itself will be much worse. Characterised by the same conduct, men and women will be permanently abandoned by God to their sin, referred to by the Lord Jesus Christ as ‘everlasting punishment’ (Matthew 25:46).
Paul is highlighting the evil and the wicked nature of sin which is directed against God himself. The crowning glory of God’s creation was made male and female, both in the image of God, and his plan was for them to show the glory and goodness of God. Yet now, having sunk to the lowest levels of human existence, mankind is given over by God to ‘a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting’ (v. 28). As someone put it, ‘Men who so love the cesspool of sin are sent into it by justice; what they want they shall have.’
Abandoned without hope?
The world we live in today is currently under God’s judgment. But does that mean that there is no hope of salvation for men and women abandoned by God to their sinful lifestyle? By no means!
Paul, though a Jew, had been a notorious sinner, consenting to Stephen’s death (Acts 22:20), a persecutor of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:4), and ‘a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man’ (1 Timothy 1:13). Yet despite his character, he obtained mercy from God.
The sins that Paul lists in Romans and 2 Timothy had once characterised the lives of many in the city of Corinth. But Paul could write, ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ had come to them and transformed them – it turned their hell to heaven. Their guilt was washed away – his blood can make the foulest clean. The prisoner’s chains are broken. Lovers of self now become lovers of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is the power of the gospel. Paul was fully persuaded that this gospel ‘is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek’ (Romans 1:16). That included men and women who are described in the verses that follow.
How thankful should we be, if we are Christians, that God has shown mercy to sinners like us and that we have not been abandoned by a righteous God to our hell-deserving sins.
Christians today need to be as fully persuaded as the apostle Paul about the power of the gospel. Joined with that confidence there must be a large heart of compassion and constant pleas that God will show mercy and save sinners by opening blind eyes and changing hard, stony hearts. Come, Holy Spirit, come now.