A key theme in the book of Romans is the righteousness of God. Before presenting his case that humans can partake of God’s righteousness by placing their faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21—8:31), the apostle Paul explained why they need it. In Romans 1:18–32, he began his argument. Even though God has unmistakably revealed Himself through creation (Romans 1:20), people persistently reject Him because they are condemned, powerless, and hopeless apart from Him. Since some people refuse to acknowledge God, Paul asserted, “God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (Romans 1:28, NRSV).
When we willfully choose to trade the glory of God and the truth about God for lies, to worship idols and created things instead of the Creator, God gives us what our heart desires, and we fall deeper and deeper into moral decline. One aspect of the downward spiral described by Paul in Romans 1:18–32 is “a debased mind.” The word for “debased” in the original Greek means “morally reprehensible, depraved, worthless, despicable.” The expression is alternatively translated as “corrupt mind” (CSB), “foolish thinking” (NLT), and “worthless mind” (HCSB).
God has given humans internal (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and external (Acts 17:23–31; Romans 1:20) evidence of His existence. Some even “knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused” (Romans 1:21, NLT). They became like the people of Noah’s time: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
Paul stated that a debased mind leads people into “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:29–32).
A debased mind cannot discern what is good, righteous, moral, or ethical. It estranges people from God, making them “his enemies, separated from him by [their] evil thoughts and actions” (Colossians 1:21, NLT). Paul explained, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:5–7).
A debased mind substitutes what is good for what is evil. It exchanges “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). It places more importance on the creation than the Creator (Isaiah 44:16–18). It seeks guidance from the universe rather than pursuing the God of the universe. Paul warned Timothy, “These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. To them, a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy” (1 Timothy 6:5, NLT). According to Paul, “depraved minds and a counterfeit faith” describe the condition of false teachers (2 Timothy 3:8).
Paul urges Christians to “no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:17–18). As believers, we must guard our minds and “let the Spirit renew [our] thoughts and attitudes. Put on [our] new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:23–24, NLT). We must let God transform all traces of our previously debased minds “by changing the way [we] think. Then [we] will learn to know God’s will . . ., which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NLT).