Paul wastes no time laying the smack down in Romans 1. He has a mission: to preach the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ to reconcile us to God, remove the wrath of God from us, justify us before God, and forgive us of our sinful rebellion. Jesus did this by living a perfect life, dying on the cross, and rising from the dead.
But Paul cannot preach the gospel if he doesn’t tell us why we need the gospel. The hard truth that we tend to ignore is this: there is no glorious good news without terribly bad news. If Paul wants to preach his gospel in this epistle, he needs to tell us the hard truth of what we have exchanged for joy in God.
The first dark exchange comes in verses 23-24. Paul says that people have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of creation. This results in God giving people over to what they want: a miserable life of impurity and dishonoring their bodies and lives.
The second dark exchange is in verses 25-26. People exchanged the truth about God for the lie of idolatry — that is, worshiping creation rather than Creator. People have chosen to worship something that is frail, finite, and dependent rather than God who is strong, infinite, and independent. Because of this, God gives people up to their horrific passions. Whatever they want to do, God lets them do it.
The third dark exchange arises out of the first two. Because people have desired impurity and sinful passions, God gives them over. Paul calls this dark exchange homosexuality. Paul writes in verses 26-27, “For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.”
Verse 28 sums up this whole mess: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” But Paul is not just “picking on” homosexuals. He includes every kind of vice in verses 29-32 you can imagine. We are all guilty before God. We have all exchanged the worship of God for something that is not worthy of worship.
That’s the terribly bad news. But the glorious good news — for the non-Christian and Christian — is that God still pursues sinners. He still sails in with his mighty grace to rescue us from drowning in these dark exchanges. The gospel is that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24-25a).