Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24-25)
The reason God gave people up in the lusts of their hearts is due to the fact that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (v. 23). God has simply given people what they really wanted. And as we have seen above, this is the wrath they will experience. It will not be true joy and happiness. It will not be satisfying and fulfilling. It will not be all they dreamed of. In fact, these dark exchanges will ruin their lives and cause them to be miserable. God “gave them up” (Gk. paradidōmi) is active and aorist in its tense, meaning it happened at one time. It also shows that God has done something, not simply “allowed” it to happen. This does not mean that God compels or causes people to sin—that would be contradictory to God’s nature and being (cf. James 1:13).
The human element in all of this is that these people have already chosen to rebel against God. They have given themselves up. On the other side of the coin, God, in his sovereignty, is still over all and controls the ebbs and flows of the world. Remember that our verb “gave them up” is active, not passive. God has not caused anyone to sin, but he reigns over them in his righteousness with his good, wise, and holy reasons.
What has God given people up to? Paul says to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity” and “the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” The first thing—“in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”—obviously carries with it heavy sexual connotations. But the greater thing to note is that Paul says that lust starts in the heart. Lust is not merely a physical problem, and “lust” is not only a sexual sin. Lusting means craving something that is forbidden. Even if we have not sinned sexually in our lives, we have still “lusted” after something (praise of man, companionship, success, money, etc.). The first thing Paul has in mind, however, is probably sexual immorality of any kind, because that is what he mentions first in vv. 26-27. The external actions of infidelity, homosexuality, pornography, sensuality, etc. are all symptoms of a greater disease: lust in the heart.
To stop fornicating or committing homosexual acts would not do anyone any good. The problem goes deeper than just our actions. Paul tells his reader that God has given people over, not to their physical desires, but to the lust that exists in their heart. Their hearts have longed for what they cannot and should not have; therefore God gives them over to impurity.
The word “impurity” is the Greek word akatharsia which means “uncleanness in a moral sense.” God has given people up to the lusts of their hearts to be morally unclean. This word is used 10 times in the New Testament, nine times in Paul. Every time Paul uses the word it is coupled with (and placed directly next to) sexual immorality (see Rom. 1:24; 6:19; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:3; 4:7). There is no doubt that Paul has sexual immorality in mind when he speaks of moral impurity in Romans 1. Later in verse 24 confirms this because our “bodies” are what are dishonored when we sin sexually (1 Cor. 6:18).
The second thing—“the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves”—is probably a fuller description of the first phrase (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 112). In other words, this phrase describes what impurity really is. It is the “dishonoring” of your body among yourself. “The expression, among themselves, is not without its force; for it significantly expresses how deep and indelible are the marks of infamy imprinted on our bodies” (Calvin).
God’s desire is for our sanctification, especially in the area of sexuality (see 1 Thess. 4:3-4). Instead of being delivered over to impurity, God wants us to surrender to him and be pure sexually, and in all areas of life. It is no wonder that some 2,000 years after Paul wrote this letter our world is plagued by devastating sexual sin. People have what they desired, and it is ruining lives, families, cultures, and whole countries. God have mercy.