The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 2
Imagine a mountain range, infinitely wide, and so high that even the known low points between peaks are higher than Everest. On the far side of the mountains lies the plain of right relationships with God – the plain of paradise.
Popular opinion has it that there are possibly two passes through the mountains to that place of glory. The first supposed pass we might call the Pagan Pass. Its followers believe that, if you set up idols in the names of gods and worship them in a prescribed manner, the gods will conduct you across Pagan Pass to the land beyond.
A second opinion is that there is a pass especially for the descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jews. Believers in that pass agree that Pagan Pass is a cul-de-sac, but that God’s covenant with Abraham, with the legal riders that God added through Moses, provides a sure way through.
St Paul’s purpose in the first three chapters of Romans (beginning at 1:18) is to show that those passes are illusory. They don’t and cannot get anyone through to the far side of the mountains. He provides those proofs in the section from 1:18 to 3:20, and then introduces the one and only pass that does go through: “For there is no distinction [both of those other purported passes are cul-de-sacs]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25).
It is important to understand that this was the destination Paul was working towards and that everything prior was designed to support that conclusion. If we do not have that understanding, we are likely to misunderstand and misapply some of what he says when he closes off “Pagan Pass” in chapter 1 and “Jewish Pass” in chapters 2 and 3.
The Dead End that’s Pagan Pass (Romans 1:18-32)
Some Christians loudly proclaim that God’s wrath is being brought down on America, or New Zealand, or wherever, by homosexual activity or abortions, or suchlike. They are wrong. They have upended what St Paul teaches in Romans 1. Here is what St Paul actually says: ”For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18, 21‑25).
St Paul teaches this sequence of events:
- Despite knowing Him, humankind stopped worshipping the one true God and started worshipping what was not God.
- Therefore, humankind incurred God’s wrath.
- Therefore, God removed his restraining hand and allowed sin to become rampant. The explosion of sin is evidence of God’s wrath, not the cause of it.
Yes, St Paul mentions sexual deviations first, but in verses 28-39 he expands the list to cover a much greater number of sins: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”.
As John Calvin says in his commentary, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.” If you are using Romans 1 to rank some sins as worse than others, you have missed Paul’s point. He’s closing off “Pagan Pass” to everyone, not just to those who commit a particular shortlist of sins.
If you want to trumpet God’s wrath in a way that is consistent with Romans 1, the people you should have in your sights are the university professors and intellectuals who use their platforms to teach contempt for the name or idea of God. Even if they happened to be opposed to abortion and old-fashioned about homosexuality, they would be the ones – according to St Paul – to draw God’s wrath down upon a society. But, actually, I think your vocal cords would be better used to announce with St Paul that, though God’s wrath is evident (regardless of whom is to blame), the mercy God offers in Christ Jesus is greater.
By the way, if you are someone who believes that some forms of same-sex relationship are not sinful, I am sure you nevertheless believe that other forms are, so that discussion does not weaken St Paul’s argument.
The Dead End that’s the “Jewish” Pass (Romans 2)
The Jewish people were right that they were a chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6), but many were wrong about how that gained them, generation by generation, access to the blessings of God. There were two ways their thinking could go wrong. Some might think that blessing and salvation were theirs just by virtue of their descent from Abraham. Others might not count on descent alone, but added to it the condition of a sufficient obedience to the Law of Moses. St Paul’s words in 2:1 to 3:20 combat both those errors.
In 1:18-32, St Paul had shown that the pagan way of life and “worship” was evidence of the wrath of God. One can imagine applause for Paul from a Jewish reader who had read just that far. However, St Paul now turns the tables. He says “…you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). We find out in verse 17 that “O man” is a representative Jew. Simply being a Jew by descent, therefore, is not enough to evade the wrath of God irrespective of quality of life.
St Paul doesn’t ask his readers to merely take his word for it. In verses 2 to 29, he makes an argument that is based on the judicial impartiality of God, and whose core is found in verses 9 to 11: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
“There you have it,” St Paul is saying to any Jew who thinks that Jewish inheritance alone will shield a person from God’s judgment, “– it won’t.” And he adds, in verse 27, “…he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.”
As St Paul develops his argument, he makes a number of statements that can be (and often are) misapplied. This will happen if we don’t remember what St Paul’s overall objective is in chapters 1 to 3, and what his particular objective is in chapter 2. His overall objective is to defeat any idea that either the Pagan or the Jewish pass goes through to God, and to establish that the only viable pass is that of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His chapter 2 objective, however, is to demonstrate the judicial equality of Jew and Gentile before God. In doing so, he makes some statements that, if pulled from their context, would undermine the overall objective. Therefore, we can take it for granted that he does not intend them to be used that way.
Besides verse 10, which I have already quoted above, the passages in question are these:
Romans 2:6-8 – “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”
Romans 2:14-16 – “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
Those passages seem to open the door to a doctrine of works-based righteousness. Verses 14‑16 are also sometimes used to suggest an answer to the “What about those who have never heard” problem. (Confession: I’ve done so myself). However, St Paul’s chapter 3 doctrine is that there is one and only one pass, and he would never intimate that there was even the roughest, most ill-defined of an alternative way.
In the context of the judicial impartiality of God, everything St Paul says in those passages is true. What is unsaid (because it is not relevant to his chapter 2 purpose), is that no Jew or Gentile (excepting, of course, Jesus) has ever achieved a standard of obedience that is high enough to clear the bar. St Paul will deal with that issue in the first twenty verses of chapter 3, and I will follow him there in my next post, I hope.
Why Gentile Believers don’t need to be Circumcised
I haven’t quite finished this post, though. It’s worth noting that, as well as furthering progress towards his main objective, St Paul has also slipped in the answer to a question that might have been troubling any members of the church in Rome who were from Jewish backgrounds, or who had been Gentile converts to the Jewish faith. The question is “Why do Gentile believers in Jesus Christ not need to be circumcised?” St Paul gives the answer in verses 28 and 29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”
Note re “A New Perspective on Paul”
I don’t believe it is necessary – for the purpose of understanding the central teachings in his letter to the Romans – to decide between the classic and new perspectives on the view of Judaism that St Paul reflects in Romans 2 and Romans 3. However he saw the Judaism of his day, and however the Jews saw themselves, the arguments St Paul provides are sufficient to show that there is no Jewish “pass” that exists apart from the way provided by Jesus Christ.
All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
By Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 (talk) – This file was derived from Mount Everest as seen from Drukair2.jpg:, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18262217