Paul makes three similar statements in this controversial paragraph. God “gave them over” to sinful desires, shameful lusts, and depraved minds. The verb (παραδίδωμι) is used in the LXX for God handing over Israel to an enemy (Gen 14:20, Exod 23:31). Kruse claims the word is exclusively used in the LXX for handing over people to an enemy (Kruse, Romans, 99).
The metaphor of “being handed over for captivity” would be clear to both Jews and Gentiles. Humanity has been handed over to a powerful enemy who has enslaved them and holds them in his power. Human enslavement to sin is a theme of the letter (Romans 6:15-23)
A Jewish reader of the letter may hear an allusion to the Jewish captivity. Because of the extreme rebellion of Israel God handed them over to their enemies where they were held in captivity until such time as God acts in history to restore them to Zion. The “end of the captivity” is a way of describing the end of Israel’s punishment for their sin and the introduction of a new age of peace and prosperity (Isaiah 19:22).
Because they suppressed the truth, God gave them up “in the lusts of their heart.” Lust is not always sexual, although this lust leads to impurity (ἀκαθαρσία) and dishonoring (ἀτιμάζω) of their bodies. Both words can have be used in a non-sexual way, but Paul uses impurity for sexual immorality (2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19, Col 3:5, Eph 5:3). Paul is referring here to sexual activity which brings dishonor to a person, the details follow in 1:26-27.
Enjoyment of a sexual relationship is part of Jewish wisdom literature, as even a glance at Song of Solomon will show. Unfortunately, Paul has a puritanical reputation with respect to sexual relationships when he does not deserve. Part of the problem is Paul is usually addressing a situation in which there is a clear sexual sin (i.e., the young man in 1 Cor 5:1-12 or going to prostitutes in 1 Cor 6:12-20).
As a Jewish teacher who is well aware of the wisdom traditions on marriage and sex, Paul would have encouraged people to enjoy their sexual relationships spouses and he did not teach every to refrain from sexual relationships and live a celibate life as he did (1 Cor 7:2-3).
Since Paul is therefore using “captivity language” to describe sexual sin, it might be appropriate to begin a discussion these verses with the observation Paul it not talking about all sexual activities, but those which are outside the intended use of a sexual relationship as God designed it in creation. Some sexual activity is good and healthy, others are addictive and can lead to a twisting of the purpose of sex so that it is no longer satisfying.
I will deal with the specific sexual practice Paul mentions in the next post, but for now I want to think a little more about how “giving them up to lust” and to an “impure heart” is the result of not acknowledging God’s revelation of himself in creation. Is it possible Paul thinks there is a natural way sex to work that is a part of creation itself? Just as God has clearly revealed his invisible qualities, perhaps he has also revealed something about our sexuality in what has been made as well.