Exposition of Romans 1:29-32, Inventors of evil devise their death

History does not support those who think human nature is basically good. At this writing, one major wars, four middle-sized wars, and numerous smaller conflicts rage in various parts of the world. In relation to global conflicts, roughly seventy-three million people died as a direct consequence of World War II alone. Humanity’s inhumanity is both historic and contemporary.

It is sad to speak about contemporary levels of crime, addiction, exploitation, and oppression. Safe in the suburbs of the West, it is hard to imagine that well over twenty-five million people in democratic India are currently known as untouchables. In the United States, three percent of the population is in prison, jail, on parole or probation; that level exceeds any other nation on the planet!

Though what is recorded above is merely the tip of an ugly iceberg, it puts in perspective Paul’s description of the behavioral consequences flowing from humanity’s suppression of the truth that God made plain to them (1:18). Sin hurts many others along with the one sinning.

(ESV) Romans 1:29-32

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Paul does not hesitate to declare his litany of sins alleged against those who have rejected God and set their own course. Douglas Moo puts the list into excellent perspective:

Throughout the list, Paul focuses on social ills, leaving out sins relating to sexual conduct and, for the most part, sins against God directly. The purpose of this recital . . . is to show the general scope of social evils produced by the unqualified mind to which God has handed sinners over. The harm done by people to other people is thus added to idolatry and sexual perversion to complete Paul’s sketch of the world outside Christ.[1]

No effort will be made here to elucidate each type of sin. We will focus instead on two phrases: “inventors of evil, disobedient to parents” (1:30). When God created man in his image, this meant a capacity for creativity along with many other things. Instead of using this God-given talent for the good of humanity, those who reject God turn their creativity toward devising new forms of evil. Think, for example, of those who dream up scams to defraud the elderly out of their life savings or who take pictures of their toddlers using illegal drugs. Who invented such evils?

In saying “disobedient to parents” (1:30), Paul demonstrates that even children may compromise the order created by God to restrain sin and promote the common good. A society whose children are out of control sees its own rebellion against God come to life in plain terms.

(ESV) Romans 1:32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 1:32 presents two difficulties: (1) the nature of what they know and (2) the implication that the encouragement of sin is worse than the sin itself. We will deal with each in turn.

The words “God’s righteous decree” (1:32) is an over-translation because it gives the impression of a formal, possibly written, public pronouncement. Paul is speaking of no such thing! Instead, he presents the matter as common knowledge among humanity. The Greek noun underlying the translation decree is dikaioma, which means “a regulation relating to just or right action, regulation, requirement, commandment.”[2] The right choice here is “requirement.”

Thomas Schreiner explains: “It follows, then, that Gentiles, without specifically having the Mosaic law, are aware of the moral requirements contained in that law . . . . They not only know that God disapproves of their behavior but they also know that it deserves the punishment of death (cf. 6:23).”[3]

As to the idea that encouraging others to rebel against God’s moral requirements is worse than rebelling alone, C.E.B. Cranfield says: “Those who condone and applaud the vicious actions of others are actually making a deliberate contribution to the setting up of a public opinion favorable to vice, and so to the corruption of an indefinite number of other people.”[4]

Jesus expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NET).

Grant Osborne ably expresses the summary of Romans 1:18-32 when he says: “The main point is that every human being has been given by God a deep awareness of two things: (1) the existence and power of God and (2) each person’s general guilt before God because of sin.”[5]

“Ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18)

While the recital of sins grip on humanity produces no joy, it is essential to understand what we have been saved from in order to grasp what we have been saved for.

In what ways is Paul's litany of sins apparent within your own community? How does the presence of these practices heighten the need to spread the gospel?

We who have trusted in Christ can look on these dark verses with praise for what God has done: “He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:13, HCSB).

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 119.

[2] BDAG-3, dikaioma, requirement, s.v.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 99.

[4] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 135.

[5] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 58.