But rather than simply bemoaning the fact that the world's in a terrible state, he gets right to the heart of the matter. The root of the problem, he says, is "ungodliness and unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). And while we get upset about the prevalence of the latter, he sees that the real problem is with the former.Having bad ideas about God is what leads to having bad ideas about ethics. Poor theology leads to poor morality.
Augustine once said, "The punishment of sin is sin!" He reflected Paul's thinking here. Ungodliness was rampant and the wrath of God was unleashed on the distortions and rejection of the truth about God. Paul says that it was because they failed to honor God as God (v.21) that he gave them over to the terrible lifestyle choices that he describes. People doing bad things is God's punishment for people who believe bad things about him.
So the behaviors in Paul's long list (vs 26-31) are decidedly perverse. But the perversity does not start with their behavior. It is interesting that our word 'pervert' is a Latin-based word (per-vertere) which is the Latin translation of a Greek word Paul uses several times in Romans 1. Our English versions translate it as "exchange". Pervsersion is a kind of exchange. So Paul says in v.25 that "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie". And then he says in v.26 that "they exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature". Two kinds of exchanges. Two kinds of perversion: pervert theology and pervert behaviour.
The focus of the debate today is on the latter: the moral perversion of unrighteousness. Paul sees that the bigger, deeper issue is the former: the theological perversion of ungodliness. "Theology doesn't matter!" reverberates around the modern church. But Paul's point is that if you pervert the truth about the creator, you will pervert the truth about the creation, the creatures, and the laws governing them. Humanity got messed up because their theology went wrong. Theology does matter! And it started with Eve: when the serpent persuaded her to believe a lie about who God is, her behavior went pear-shaped as she ate the fruit. We are unrighteous in our behavior because we are ungodly in our thinking. We have made two sorts of exchanges and they are both very bad deals.
But the Gospel is God's great exchange to solve the problems of our exchanges. In Christ he has swapped Christ's righteousness for our sinfulness, and we have a peach of a deal. He who knew no sin became sin as our sin was laid on him; and he was stripped of his righteousness just as clearly as the robe was pulled off his back as he went to the cross, and his robes of righteousness have become ours. In terms of natural justice, it's utterly perverse. He died the death we deserved and we live the life he earned. This is the ultimate unfair trade. O the grace of God - that he saw the terrible exchanges we had made and proceeded to make one of his own - far bigger, far more powerful. We are the winners in this deal, and in this deal the winner takes all! "For all things are yours!" (1Cor 3:21).