‘God gave them up’ is not a passive statement

Our plight is more hopeless than we dare to imagine. Judgment isn’t on the distant horizon; our judgment has already begun.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… Rom 1:24 {ESV}

Before his grand unveiling of the gospel, Paul must set the stage for the presentation. The setting is bleak to say the least.

Mankind is characterized by truth suppression on a massive scale. He denies the undeniable–that he owes his existence to a Creator–and by self-delusion he worships creaturely things as if they are worthy of honor (Rom 1:18-24).

But suppression and delusion isn’t just done in sin, it’s done for sin. After all, if I make the god I also make the rules.

As a result, God “gave them up/hands them over” to the very impurity and passions they seek. But what does it mean for God to hand over?

For some time now I assumed a passive interpretation. That “hand over” implies “let go.” But as Doug Moo explains in his commentary on Romans, a passive interpretation isn’t the best interpretation for the following reasons:

  1. Paul’s use of “hand over” has its roots in the OT where God is said to “hand over” Israel’s enemies (or vice versa) to be defeated in battle (Exod 23:31; Deut 7:23).
  2. the Greek verb for “hand over” is used in an active sense in the NT in a variety of ways: handing over things to people (1Cor 13:3), handing over people into judicial custody (Mat 26:15), handing over Christian tradition (1Cor 15:3)

That said, when Paul says that God “handed them over” his language signifies an act of divine judgment not a mere withdrawal of divine influence (i.e. no longer preventing or restraining man’s sin). Illustratively, Moo concludes :

. . . the meaning of “hand over” demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator of the process. God does not simply let the boat go — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin. [emphasis added]

All of this is in keeping with what we find on the lips of Jesus & John the Baptist:

“He who believes in [the Son] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” (Jn 3:18-19)

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”(Jn 3:36)

Our plight is more hopeless than we dare to imagine. Judgment isn’t on the distant horizon; our judgment has already begun. There’s no avoiding judgment because we’re already in it. But what if the same God who handed us over would hand over someone else in our place?

That would be good news.

Romans 8:32-33   He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.


Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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