A. First Subsidiary Thesis (1:18):
Sinful Humanity is Under God’s Wrath
Ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων… (Apokaluptetai gar orgē theou epi pasan asebeian kai adikian anthrōpōn tōn tēn alētheian en adikian katechontōn…)–The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… (NIV)
NIV does not translate the gar (“for”), but it is essential to the rhetorical sense. It shows that Paul is about to give a reason in support of his grand thesis, a reason that we could sum up as this: humanity has a desperate need for righteousness from God, because wickedness has brought down his wrath.
The first clause of that summary of mine is an inference, but put yourself into the sandals of a Roman hearer. It is the clear rhetorical implication of Paul’s words as he sweeps on from the grand thesis of 1:16-17 and into verse 18, especially as the apokaluptetai of verse 18 echoes the same word in verse 17, and asebeian kai adikian anthrōpōn contrasts with dikaiosunē theou. This understanding, therefore, would have guided the minds of the Romans as they listened to Paul’s ensuing words, and it should guide ours.
Exposition A, Part 1 (1:19-32): The Sin that Draws Down Wrath
In verses 19 to 32, Paul gives evidence in support of his statement about the godlessness and wickedness of humankind. I think he also, in verses 24, 26 and 28, explains how – at least in part – God’s wrath was being revealed: παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς (paredōken autous ho theos) – God gave them up. However, even if so, that is incidental to his main purpose, which is to prove the depravity and hence the under-wrathness of humankind.
It is not at all his purpose to rank some sins and therefore some sinners as worse than others. Those who use 1:19-32 for that end have smugly missed the point. As John Calvin says on his commentary on this passage, “…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.” That is, we are all in there somewhere. That is the point Paul is labouring, and that is the point that his hearers in the Roman church would have taken from his words.
Exposition A, Part 2 (2:1-16): The Impartiality of God
Even though there is sufficient in the list of sins in 1:29-31 to convict Jews as well as Gentiles, Jewish hearers of Paul’s words in 1:18-32 might be excused for thinking that the warning there applied only to Gentiles. After all, 1st Century Judaism was free from idol-worship, and Jewish society was not characterised by sexual laxity. Did their place as the chosen people of God gave them automatic shelter from God’s wrath? Paul now sets about disabusing them of those illusions. (In verse 17, it will be made explicit that the “you” he is addressing is primarily a Jewish “you”, and this is also intimated in the phrase “first the Jew, and then the Gentile” that recurs in verses 9 and 10.)
Paul opens this section with a sentence that is designed to shock Jewish hearers, a sentence that begins (in the Greek) with “therefore” and so links what Paul is now saying back to the stark warnings of 1:18-32. “You, therefore, have no excuse … because you who pass judgment do the same things” (NIV). And notice, particularly, how ἀναπολόγητος (anapologētos) in 2:1 echoes the same word in 1:20 – “without excuse”. Gentile? Jew? No difference – no excuse!
He continues, “…when you … pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (2:3, NIV). “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile;but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (2:9-10). And, as for relying on the special favour God has shown the Jews, “…do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (2:4)
This all leads to verse 11, which gives the summary point of this part of the exposition: οὐ γάρ ἐστιν προσωπολημψία παρὰ τῷ θεῷ (ou gar estin prosōpolēmpsia tō theō)–“For God does not show favoritism” (NIV), and Paul enlarges on this in verses 12 to 16, whose essential points are asserted in verses 12 and 13 in an expansion of verses 9 and 10: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”
Noting a Dissonance
Paul’s hearers may at this point notice a dissonance. They still have in their minds his grand thesis, which asserts that righteousness comes via the gospel from faith, to faith, but there is no mention of the gospel or faith here. They have also heard, in 1:18-32 and 2:1-5 a litany of mortal sins that seems to condemn everyone, but now Paul seems to be setting out an alternative path to righteousness, that of living a moral life that, wittingly or not, conforms to God’s moral law.
We later readers know, of course, that Paul himself will have completely resolved that dissonance by the time we get to 3:20, but his original hearers didn’t have that advantage. What they did have was the grand thesis that had been so emphatically stated, and the stark warnings of 1:18 to 2:5. They had also just heard summarised, in verse 11, what was clearly a major plank of the argument Paul was building at this point: “God does not show favoritism”. Some at least, therefore, of Paul’s hearers may have immediately recognised that the words we have as verses 9-10 and 12-13 were there in support of verse 12 and so had only an indirect relationship to the grand thesis. Whether it is a matter of condemnation or approbation, God does not show favouritism. Gentiles and Jews will be treated alike on the day of judgment.
Other hearers who did not get that far in their thinking would nevertheless simply have noted the question and listened on to see whether Paul resolved it later.
Exposition A, Part 3 (2:17-29): True Jewishness
Lest any Jewish hearers should have missed the point, Paul now lays it home to them in verses 17-24: many sins which they condemn in others are just as endemic among Jews. Paul has just stressed the impartiality of God. In the light of that point, the unmistakable implication is that just being a Jew will not get you past the bar of God’s judgment.
This leads on to Paul’s explanation in verses 25-29 of what circumcision and Jewishness truly means. He springs the surprise on his hearers that God would view an uncircumcised but law-obeying Gentile exactly as though he were a Jew, and rightly so, because outward circumcision is just a symbol of what is supposed to be an inward reality. If the inward reality is not there, no outward symbol can create it.
Paul also mentions for the first time the role of the Spirit in bringing about true, inward circumcision. The Spirit’s work will be developed in important ways later in the epistle, but here the mention is incidental to the main point of the paragraph, which is found in these words: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly… No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart.”
This mention of the work of the Spirit is not incidental, however, to the persuasive power of Paul’s argument. The Romans were already believers; they were already indwelt by the Spirit; they had already experienced the circumcision of the heart that the Spirit brings. Therefore, whether they had come to faith as Jews or as Gentiles, their own experience would have lent force to the case Paul is making, and especially as they observed the transformation in each other that the Spirit had wrought. The epistle is not an abstract doctrinal treatise; its words were spoken into a real situation, to real people with a living, breathing faith and experience, and it is vital to our interpretation of Romans that we keep that in mind.
Still Thinking about the Dissonance
A hearer alert to the flow of Paul’s rhetoric will have realised that Paul is still on the topic of the impartiality of God, though the mention of the Spirit may have given them another clue as to how the resolution was going to turn out. Other hearers may not have realised that, but nevertheless Paul’s words would have prepared their minds for the further development of the case he is making.
Exposition A, Part 4 (3:1-8): A Digression
Paul starts chapter 3 with a sentence that seems to suggest that he is about to enumerate reasons why, despite all he has said in the previous chapter, the Jews still had worthwhile advantages: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.” However, he digresses to combat some errors and accusations that evidently had been put about by people who had previously heard and misunderstood his teaching. This digression interrupts the rhetorical flow of his main argument, and I do not think it is necessary to consider its detail here. I think his original hearers would also have sensed that it was a digression, and it would not have affected their comprehension of his overall argument.
Exposition A, Part 5 (3:9-20): Pressing the Point Home
Paul has demonstrated the ubiquity amongst Gentiles and Jews of sin that is sufficient to earn God’s wrath, and he has stressed the impartiality of God. En route, he has let it seem that obedience to the law might provide some with a path so that they could be declared righteous, but now, in these final twelve verses of this part of his argument, he will remove that misconception and further underscore his argument with multiple quotations from the Scriptures.
First, he reiterates that Ἰουδαίους τε καὶ Ἕλληνας πάντας ὑφ’ ἁμαρτίαν εἶναι (Ioudaious te kai Hellēnas pantas huph’ hamartian einai) – “both Jews and Greeks, are all under sin” (3:9, my translation). Then he quotes numerous Old Testament passages that support that conclusion. In the sources, some of the quotations refer to the whole human race (Psalm 14); some to the Jewish nation (Isaiah 59:3,5,7-8); and some to subsets: David’s enemies (Psalm 5:9), the wicked (Psalms 10:7 and 36:1), and evil and violent men (Psalm 140:1-3).These quotations are sufficient to prove that Paul’s allegation is exactly what is taught in the Scriptures,in the very law on which some of the Jews might have been depending as their path to righteousness! Therefore (coup de gras), “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (NIV). QED!
New Perspective on Paul
Paul’s conclusion remains true and cogent whether we understand Paul as Luther did, as characterising the Judaism of his day as seeking to obtain salvation by works-righteous law-keeping, or we follow the NPP scholars and acknowledge that first century Judaism was in fact very conscious of grace, and Paul knew it and wasn’t trying to misrepresent it.
His conclusion is also true and cogent whether, as we follow his subsequent argument in the remainder of chapter 3 and the rest of the epistle, we conceive of salvation in traditionally Protestant individualistic terms, or with some NPP scholars we see it in more corporate terms. Either way, whatever the destination, Paul has proven the point: studious law-keeping is not the way to get there, and it is not necessary to adopt the outward covenant forms of Judaism to become part of the people of God.
Next: Second Subsidiary Thesis: (3:20-24) The Work of Christ, Apprehended by Faith, Brings us to God