The conclusion of Romans 1 is that no human responds to the clear revelation of God in creation. Because humans do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, God hands them over to a “not worthwhile” mind. Based on contemporary rhetoric one would assume the worst of all sins was homosexuality. Yet the worthless thinking of the world which rejects the clear revelation of God is quite familiar to everyone. It is remarkable how few of these sins are related to sex, in contrast to Christian preaching on sin.
The first verb (δοκιμάζω) is related to the adjective translated “debased” in the ESV (ἀδόκιμος). This word has the sense of “not standing the test” (BDAG), thus worthless. This play on words highlights the worthlessness of Gentile thinking, since they have chosen not to acknowledge God properly, God allows that thinking to follow its course, resulting in complete separation.
Virtue and vice lists are common on both Greek and Roman sources. Paul’s sin list is remarkably similar to a list in the Wisdom of Solomon 14:22-31.
Wisdom of Solomon 14:22–31 (NRSV) Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace. 23 For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, 24 they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, 25 and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, 26 confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. 27 For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. 28 For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; 29 for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. 30 But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. 31 For it is not the power of the things by which people swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous.
Paul’s list is “what ought not to be done.” Most of the words in Paul’s sin list are self-evident in the sense that we do not need to define anger, rage, or malice. We know it when we see it! One item in Paul’s list stands out. Disobedience to parents was seen by both Jews and Romans as “profoundly dangerous” (cited by Jewett, Romans, 188). Seneca the Elder said “remember, fathers expected absolute obedience from their children and could punish recalcitrant children even with death.” Deuteronomy 21:18-21 allows for disobedient children to be taken to the city gates and stoned to death!
The final four words, “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless,” indicate people lack the basic essentials of humanity from the perspective of the Greco-Roman world (Jewett, Romans, 188-9). The ESV attempts to give the rhyming flavor of the Greek text (ἀσυνέτους ἀσυνθέτους ἀστόργους ἀνελεήμονας, asynetous asynthetous astorgous aneleēmonas).
Virtually every vice on this list in Romans 1:28-31 would be considered sinful or evil in most cultures that have ever existed, yet every culture that has ever existed still struggles with envy, murder, strife, etc. For a Jewish reader it would be very easy at this point to point a finger at the Gentile world and say “preach it, Paul!” So too contemporary Christians who (hypocritically) finish reading this chapter and whisper to themselves, “I am glad I am not like one of those people!”
It is healthy for a Christian reader of Romans 1 not to point fingers at others, but honestly agree with Paul that these “things which ought not be done” are far too common in the local church. Paul’s intention was not to embarrass people or call them sinners, but to show that we are all in the same place, people who have fallen short of the glory of God.