In this brief excerpt author Nancy Pearcey explains the apostle Paul's teaching in Romans 1 regarding idolatry and its consequences. Please see her excellent book for more info. -- AC21DOJ

Idols Have Consequences
by Nancy Pearcey
(as found in Finding Truth)

So here is Paul’s diagnosis of the human condition so far: God is constantly reaching out to people with evidence of his existence through general revelation. But humans are constantly suppressing those truths by creating idols.

This pattern of suppression creates an acute internal tension. On one hand, people are aware of the evidence for the biblical God from general revelation. On the other hand, they keep creating surrogate gods in a desperate attempt to suppress that evidence. To borrow a term from psychology, humans are trapped in cognitive dissonance, the mental stress of harboring concepts that contradict one another.

How does God break us out of the trap? He responds in a way we might not expect: He ratchets up the tension. He allows us to live out the consequences of our idols in order to intensify the cognitive dissonance -- and ultimately to press us to the point of making a decision. In Paul’s words, God “gives people up” to experience the consequences of their choices:

God gives us up to the consequences of our idols -- to a “debased” mind.

Romans 1:21 -- Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking.
Romans 1:28 -- Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind.

What are the consequences of serving idols? Paul’s answer starts with the inner life: “They became futile in their thinking.” “God gave them up to a debased mind” (Rom. 1:21, 28). The Greek word for mind is nous, but it has a much richer meaning than the English word. It can be translated reason, understanding, or intellectual intuition. (The same word is at the root of the Greek term for repentance, metanoia, which means to change one’s nous -- not just the mind but a whole-person transformation.) The church fathers often translated nous as the faculty for evaluating and directing the course of one’s life: “the eye of the soul.” So it is no great stretch to translate the word as worldview, the convictions by which we direct our lives.

Today the word debased has a primarily moral connotation, meaning wicked or degenerate. But in the original Greek, the word meant counterfeit money. So a debased worldview is one that offers a counterfeit god. It makes false promises. It gives misleading answers to the questions of life.  [24]

In the original language, this verse (Rom. 1:28) contains a fascinating wordplay. The word worthwhile in the first clause has the same root as debased. The parallel can be expressed like this: Just as people did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, so God gave them up to a worthless worldview. And a worldview shapes not only their thought life but also their actions. “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves” (Jer. 2:5 NIV). Here’s how Paul expresses the connection:

God gives us up to the consequences of our idols -- to “dishonorable” behavior.

Romans 1:24 -- God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.
Romans 1:26 -- God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
Romans 1:28 -- God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Once again the connection is captured by the word exchanged. First Paul says people “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom. 1:23; see also Rom. 1:25). [25] Next Paul shows what this trade-off does to human behavior: “Women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” and men did the same (Rom. 1:26–27). At the time Paul was writing, in both Greco-Roman culture and Hellenistic Jewish culture, “contrary to nature” was a standard phrase referring to homosexual behavior. [26]

At the time, the term nature was not used the way people use it today, to mean behavior observed in the natural world. Instead nature meant behavior that is normative for human nature: behavior that fits the way humans were originally created, that accords with God’s purpose for humanity, that matches the ideal standard of what it means to be fully human.

In this sense of the term, all sin is contrary to human nature, and Paul goes on to itemize a representative sampling: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full 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” (Rom. 1:29–31). All these behaviors -- and more -- are contrary to what it means to be fully human.

In this chapter Paul has unfolded a highly sensitive analysis of the link between mind and behavior. He outlines a clear and calamitous progression: First, “they did not honor him as God” (Rom. 1:21). “Therefore God gave them up … to the dishonoring of their bodies” (Rom. 1:24). “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1:26). The principle is that those who dishonor God inevitably dishonor themselves and others. To adapt a phrase, idols have consequences.


24. “In the ancient world there was no banking system as we know it today, and no paper money. All money was made from metal, heated until liquid, poured into moulds and allowed to cool. When the coins were cooled, it was necessary to smooth off the uneven edges. The coins were comparatively soft, and of course many people shaved them closely. In one century, more than eighty laws were passed in Athens to stop the practice of whittling down the coins then in circulation.” This money, which was less than full weight, was described as “debased.” Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans: God’s Glory (Philadelphia: Evangelical Foundation, 1964), 18, cited at Blue Letter Bible, s.v. “dokimos.” |BACK|

25. In using the term exchanged, Paul is echoing a verse from the Old Testament: “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Ps. 106:19–20). An echo goes back even further to Genesis 1:26, where the cultural mandate gives humans stewardship over the rest of creation. “God created human beings for ‘dominion’ over these creatures, but fallen human idolaters now bow before the likenesses of animals.” Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 211, n. 26. |BACK|

26. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 387. Sarah Ruden, a scholar of Greco-Roman culture, says the main form of homosexual behavior that Paul was most likely to observe in his day was pederasty, most frequently the sexual abuse of young male slaves by their masters, although freeborn boys were vulnerable to being raped as well. Among the Greeks and Romans, the active partner was praised as virile and masculine, even when they were cruel and vicious, while the passive partner (the victim) was regarded as weak and disgusting. But Paul treats the active partner as equally guilty and degraded, and in fact condemns homosexuality as a form of injustice (the word for “unrighteousness” in Romans 1:18 is often translated “injustice”). Because pederasty was accepted in Roman culture, and the perpetrators even admired, “Paul’s Roman audience … would have been surprised to hear that justice applied to homosexuality, of all things.” “No Closet, No Monsters? Paul and Homosexuality,” chap. 3 in Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Image Books, 2010). |BACK|

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