Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18ff is about more than Gentile rebellion—it concerns Gentile rebellion as it related to creation. Man was made to rule over creation in a way that would glorify and image God (Genesis 1:26ff). Adam and Eve fell short of this by failing to honor Yahweh’s and sentence was pronounced upon them, the serpent, and a curse was placed upon creation relative to humans. Satan will be judged while everyone and everything else needs redemption (Romans 8:19-25).
There’s something of this dynamic in Romans 1 as Paul speaks of people who, “although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him” (v. 21). To these people who knew God and His decree (v. 32), the creation bore visible confirmation of the invisible God’s “eternal power and Divine nature” (v. 19-20). As we would expect, creation’s witness was in harmony with its Creator’s purposes.
But the people Paul speaks of rejected those purposes and didn’t worship God. Instead, they inverted His created order by worshipping the creation instead (v. 22-23). As a consequence of their subversiveness, God gave them over to “shameful lusts” where “they exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (v. 26). The punishment fit the crime—because “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (v. 25), they are given over to further perversion of the created order.
From this we see what is suggested in Genesis 1, that sin isn’t just a human problem—it is a creation problem as well. Sin is not self-contained. Though some love to speak of it as their private business, nothing could be further from the truth. (That they think so is part of the deceitfulness of sin – Hebrews 3:13). Someone abuses drugs for their “personal pleasure”— it affects their health, their friends, family, job performance, society, etc. Under the wrong circumstances (driving a vehicle, handling a firearm, etc.) it could cause great harm to others (to say nothing of the heartache it brings to their loved ones). That’s just the way sin works.
But sin also contaminates things. People (especially men) who love children and want to help and mentor them are looked upon with suspicion because sexual predators have put everyone on guard. Schools have to closely monitor who walks through their doors because of the violence they’ve seen. And on it goes.
We shouldn’t be surprised that God’s gift of creation has gone the same route. What started out as being “very good” has been stained repeatedly by sin: the ground by Abel’s blood, trees, hills and mountains by idolatry and harlotry (Hosea 4:13), as well as the sun, moon and stars (Deuteronomy 17:3). This is one of Paul’s concerns in this section—to show that everything has been tainted by sin so he can show how through Jesus all has been redeemed.
Texts like Romans 8:19-25; Colossians 2:15 and others call our attention to the truth that redemption is gloriously larger than what we commonly celebrate in song, thank God for in prayer, or speak about among ourselves. It should remind us of God’s greatness and cause us to rejoice in what He has in store for us.