This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren
II. The Coming Condemnation of All (1:18-3:20)
Paul’s goal is to prove that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) and that even more fatally, any and all sin is eternally disastrous for Gentile or Jew.
Foremost of course he is addressing the Christians of Rome, whether they are Jewish or not. But on another level, Paul is talking as if he were addressing an imaginary synagogue audience (see our description of “apostrophe” under 2:1). In 1:18-32, he first speaks about Gentile wickedness, in a way that his hypothetical synagogue would have certainly appreciated. It is precisely what the young rabbi Sha’ul would have heard or preached before he encountered Christ. Then, beginning in 2:1, he speaks to that same imaginary audience of Jews about how their own sins are enough to bring down God’s wrath on their heads.
It is human nature that we feel most happy when someone judges the sins of “them” or “Those Others,” especially if we are left in peace with our own behaviors. It is not hard to find a modern parallel:
Once there was a small country church, and two elderly women would always sit together in the first pew. One Sunday, the preacher began his sermon: “Brothers and sisters: we must reject the use of intoxicating beverages!” One of the ladies turned to the other and said, “Amen! Amen!” Later he preached, “We must completely root out all illegal drugs!” Again, she said to her companion, “Amen, Amen!” Finally, the pastor said: “And we must totally abandon the practice of gossip!” The lady slowly turned to the other and whispered, “Well, now he’s just meddling.”
We will begin in 1:18-32 with the sins of Those Others, the Gentiles or non-Jews, and later on the sins of Us, the Jews.
A. God will condemn those who commit stereotypically Gentile sins: idolatry and sexual corruption (1:18-32)
After announcing that the gospel is powerful to save anyone, Paul leaps immediately into why salvation is necessary in the first place; that is, he moves in 1:18 from Solution (the gospel) to Problem (the wrath of God).
In any kind of persuasive speech – by a preacher, politician, or lawyer – it is a common strategy to first seek common ground with the listener, and then to proceed to areas of disagreement. For example, one popular evangelistic program says that we should not start off by saying that God is going to punish sinners, because the person will immediately retort, “Well, I believe in a God of love.” So instead they suggest that we begin with “God is love” and afterward go on to show that “God is righteous and must punish all unrighteousness.”
In the sermons recorded in Acts, Paul used this sort of method, and he certainly does so in Romans 1-3. Neither the synagogue nor the Christians thought that the pagans could escape the punishment of God, and Paul begins with these Gentiles since it will be the easier of the two points. This is an important concept in the letter, for example: “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (14:10, 12). There are two and only two possible outcomes in the final judgment – on the one hand, condemnation; and on the other vindication, which is also known as justification.
The apostle enumerates four broad reasons for the condemnation of the Gentiles – idolatry (vv. 18-25); the result of their “sinful desires”, especially homosexual fornication (vv. 24, 26-28); a list of vices (vv. 29-31); the fact that they approve of others who do evil (v. 32).
The wrath of God is not merely symbolic language, as some have argued; nor is meant to coerce people into behaving better. Paul means to say that there will be eternal condemnation for the wicked, that it is just as real as is salvation, and just as eternal (see 3:5; 9:22; also 6:23). Once again Paul uses the key word all, that is, all “godlessness and wickedness.” Although it might escape the first-time reader, this word “all” will turn out to have a great impact on Jews, who believed that they would be spared from God’s judgment, despite having committed some sins.
Later in this epistle (5:12ff.) Paul will speak of the Fall of Adam and how that event led to death and sin for the whole race. In Romans 1 Paul is focusing on the history of the nations more than the Fall. There is ongoing idolatry and depravity, plus, divine wrath is already being poured out during this age (1:24).
Paul gives some value to what is called “general revelation”, that is, that by looking at God’s creation one might gain some understanding of who God is. Paul returns to the same theme in 10:18, quoting Psalm 19:4, that Israel has had a clear though limited message from the heavens who God is. God has not “written his gospel in the stars”; the best we can say about general revelation is that “…the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness” (Calvin, p. 71; see also Wilckens, pp. 150-154 for a detailed analysis).
The Roman empire was filled with magnificent temples, and much of its capital city was given over to the worship the pagan gods. The military camp in the city was named for Mars, god of war. Besides the traditional gods of Jupiter, Juno, and the rest, Greek, Egyptian and other religions had their adherents. The “emperor cult” was also a feature of religion in Paul’s day, with temples to Julius Caesar and Augustus. All of this is the background of Paul’s condemnation of so many kinds of idols, “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (v. 23); the whole endeavor is a “lie” (v. 25). It is noteworthy that neither did the philosophers of the day believe in the idols as such; their deities were more abstract and sometimes identified with Fate or Providence. Hence some would assent with Paul that God was invisible (1:20); the philosophers in Athens probably agreed with Paul that the one God “does not live in temples built by human hands” (Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, even Socrates practiced the religious rites of his city, up until the very end of his life, as did most of the educated and ruling classes – the Athenian philosophers were “very religious” by this definition of strict adherence to rituals (Acts 17:22). In part they did not want to be the cause of the city’s or the empire’s downfall by displeasing heaven, and in part they regarded religion as a means of controlling the lower classes. Paul’s point in vv. 19-20 is not that everyone should become a theist, a believer in some deity, but that they should worship the true creator God from Genesis (see Rom 5:12-17), that is the God of Israel (9:5), and that true religion includes being grateful to him and walking in holiness.
While Paul does not specifically name the Gentiles here, nevertheless this is the implication of the stereotypical language that he uses. For the Jews of the Second Temple, the root of all Gentile evil was idolatry. One rabbi commented, two centuries later – “Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah” (Midrash Sifre Deuteronomy 54). Thus, the final coming of Yahweh to judge the world would have as its aim the destruction of religious apostasy.
The wrath of God is not just an anxiety for some far-off time; spiritual rebels are already feeling its effects: humans abandoned the true God (vv. 23, 25, 27) and in turn God “gave them over” (v. 24, 26, 28), that is, he abandoned them to their evil practices. The pagans have “sinful desires” and pant after “sexual impurity” (v. 24); in this context it is a synonym of “fornication” and refers to any sort of illicit sexual desire or activity. There is a similar phrase “shameful lusts” in v. 26. That is, in both their minds and behaviors they were apostate from the true Creator.
Special note on sexuality. Whereas in some cultures, sex is linked with romance or child-bearing, many in the Americas view it as a casual activity – highly to be desired, but ultimately with little meaning. Although one might argue that our society is crazy about sex, another way to look at it is that is devalues sex into a biological transaction. “It’s just sex!” is a popular slogan; but far from revealing that people enjoy bodily pleasures too much, it shows they enjoy them too little. Many assume that God, if he exists, is so vast and remote that he could not possible be interested in whether a couple has relations. While this axiom could work in some philosophies, it does not fit into the Christian message: God has given us fair warning that sexual deeds cannot be reduced to what I do with “just my body” – therefore Paul commands, “let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit” (2 Cor 7:1; also 1 Cor 6:19-20).
Vv. 26 and 27 have traditionally been interpreted as a condemnation of all homosexual activity between women and between men (see for example Stott, pp. 76-78, and almost all commentaries); that is the conclusion we will eventually take here. But first, we will begin with some cultural background; then explore the other principal text on this theme, 1 Corinthians 6:9; and then return to Romans 1.
Special Note: Homosexuality in Antiquity. Many or most people of Paul’s day who engaged in homosexual acts would, in modern terms, be categorized as bisexual. Homosexual activity in Greco-Roman society ran the full spectrum from positive consensual relationships to outright exploitation and rape. Young Greek male friends sometimes formed a sexual relationship while awaiting marriage, and there were those who argued that sex with another male was a superior relationship than sex with the “inferior” sex. Also, it was not unusual for a man to engage in sex with weaker males, be they slaves, young boys, or protégées. Even the Greek supreme god Zeus, whose appetite for females was voracious, had an eye for handsome boys: in one instance, he kidnapped Ganymede, and made him his cupbearer and sex object (the word “catamite” is derived from his name).
Paul, we assume, had seen a great deal in his journeys – he encountered people from all walks of life and probably knew that some homosexual relationships were consensual and that some were not.
Paul had also received standard Jewish training. While there are plenty of times when Paul rejects the rabbinic interpretation of the Scriptures, the entire passage of Romans 1:18-32 is not one of them. The rabbis took Leviticus 18:22 (also 20:13), “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” as a prohibition of all sex between males. They coined the Hebrew term mishkav zakur (to sexually bed a male) as their regular label for it. The Alexandrian theologian Philo cites that verse and explicitly refers to the vice of “the love of boys”; but he also clearly condemns boys and men who voluntarily, consensually submit to other men – “a subject of boasting not only to those who practise it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame…[they] are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one” (Particular Laws 3.7 §37 [Yonge]). He would also say, „And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such [men who commit homosexual acts as] worthy of death, since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption…” (Philo, Particular Laws 3.7 §38 [Yonge]). Josephus, who like Paul was from a Pharisaic background, interpreted Leviticus in the same way – Moses forbade “the lying with a male, which was to hunt after unlawful pleasures on account of beauty. To those who were guilty of such insolent behavior, he ordained death for their punishment” (Josephus, Antiquities 3.12.1 §275 [Whiston]). Like the other Jewish interpreters of the Law, Paul regarded the desire for same-sex relations and their practice as an abomination.
Special Note on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Paul excludes the malakoi and arsenokoitai from the coming kingdom; we will say more about translation issues below. In this text, Paul says nothing there about motivation or what we would call sexual orientation, but only of behaviors. It is very likely that he bases his teaching on Leviticus: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev 18:22). Paul’s word arsenokoitai is uncommon in Greek, but it is an exact literal translation of the Hebrew mishkav zakur. The term malakoi was a common slur against men who acted in an effeminate manner and/or played the female role in a homosexual act. Some authors have argued that malakoi were unwilling participants, for example, slaves or forced prostitutes or boys. The strongest argument against this is: why in the world would Paul say that the malakoi would never enter God’s kingdom, if they were by definition the victims of another’s predation? Victims of the wickedness of others, including sexual lust, are not to blame if circumstances are beyond their control. In his 1 Corinthians commentary, Origen points to that noun malakoi and shows that it may refer to consensual acts: he warns his young adult male students about voluntarily submitting to another man, charging them “to keep your youth pure and not to be defiled with such a womanish defilement.”
One senses in the English Bible translations a delicacy about spelling out what the two terms malakoi and arsenokoitai mean; after all, they are meant to be read out in church. Still, there are better and worse translations. The Message paraphrase is the worst in general usage; it completely flouts the original with vagary: “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex.” The 1984 edition of the NIV rendered it, “nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders.” It is too broad with the latter term, since the original speaks only of males, not all “offenders.” But that edition (along with NAB, NASB, NLT, NRSV) errs further when it makes the malakoi out to be prostitutes, that is, men or boys who have sex with other men as part of an economic transaction. A better translation for malakoi is “men or boys who voluntarily submit themselves sexually to another man” (and thus will not enter the kingdom of God); and for arsenokoitai, “men who sexually use men or boys as they would a woman.” The 2011 edition of the NIV is a great improvement on the 1984; along with many other versions (the ESV for example) it conflates the two words together to form “men who have sex with other men.” It is also clearer than the King James Version. One must mention that neither edition of the NIV, by the way, is a gay Bible, nor was its views on sex influenced, as an urban legend has it, because of a supposed lesbian translator.
Let us return to our text: whereas in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul focuses on behavior, not sexual inclination, in Romans 1 he speaks to both desire and behavior; and in Romans he also addresses lesbian sexuality (v. 26), a theme that appears only in this Bible text (see especially Dunn, pp. 1.64-66).
It has been argued that in Romans 1:26-27 Paul is not condemning loving homosexual relationships, but only those which are linked with idolatry or with those that are caused by lustful and perhaps exploitive passion. Another interpretation is that Paul is condemning only that homosexual activity which goes, literally, “against nature” (v. 26). This argument runs that, wholesome homosexual activity so long as it is natural for the partners: that is, if they are naturally attracted to same-sex, then going against one’s own homosexual inclinations could be thought to be unnatural and wrong. Nevertheless, Paul nowhere speaks positively of homosexual inclination or activity, and he came from a rabbinic culture where Torah was thought to be explicit about the issue.
Paul pointed to homosexual desire and activity in Romans 1, not because that was the only “sexual impurity” (v. 24) he could think of, but because it was so common among Greeks and almost unheard of among Jews – thus for the rabbis it was a litmus test of how depraved the Gentiles had gotten.
Practical Thoughts: The question that faces all readers of the text is, what to do with what Paul says? Those who reject the traditional interpretation (1) Some argue that we have misunderstood Paul, and that he didn’t say anything about loving, positive same-sex relationships. But Paul, in these two places and probably also in 1 Timothy 1:10, shows that he continues in the traditional reading of the Torah, that voluntary homosexual activities are sinful as such. He went out of his way to condemn them, in an environment where his stance went against the tide of Greek culture. (2) Or that Paul simply did not apply consistently other, more fundamental, truths of the gospel, that is the law of love and our equality in Christ; and that if we would only put his erratic attitudes on homosexuality to one side, we would be honoring the spirit of his teaching if not the letter. (3) That Paul was a product of his rabbinical training and that he could not imagine an alternative answer to that issue – today we have other scientific insight that might have given him a different perspective had he lived now instead of then. (For example, studies today hint that genetics and in vitro conditions might influence – but not determine – sexual orientation; I know of no reason why those findings would have shocked Paul or run counter to general biblical teaching.) (4) That one’s hermeneutic is never objective, and therefore if a Bible reader concludes that the text speaks contrary to homosexual behavior, then that is the prejudice that that person brought into the text, that is, that only a person who already rejects gay people would be able to find such teaching in the Bible. (5) That Paul was not an infallibly inspired writer, and therefore we can take or leave his teachings as we think proper.
If one listens closely to the current debate, then there seem to be people who use all five arguments at once, despite the fact that they are inconsistent with each other and thus create a paradox. A more logical approach, in theory, is #5, to simply give up on Paul being 100% right all the time, and thus not taking his thoughts here as authoritative. The difficulty for the evangelical, of course, is that once one switches off some verses, we have given ourselves the authority to reject others which cause us discomfort in some way. Nor does it do us much good to say that, well, only 6-7 of the 31,000 verses of the Bible mention the topic, therefore we can discount it – there are a number of Bible truths that show up only rarely, but are still counted as valid.
From this point, let us ask what a Christian approach to gay and lesbian people would look? First, it must be loving, and also just. Latin American culture, for example, with its emphasis on machismo, can be particularly harsh on homosexual men. In fact, many rapes against males are inflicted by “straight” men, who use sexual violence in order to demonstrate their own virility. This is also a common story in the prison system; and it has been demonstrated that the majority of sexual predation in the United States military is carried out by men against men. The church needs to expose and stand firm against all such unwanted violence, particularly since many Christians view prison rape as just and acceptable. There are many other issues where the church should seek justice for all people regardless of their sexual orientation, for example, in housing and labor rights.
But more importantly, the church also needs to point to the cross of Christ as the solution to all our spiritual issues. Our basic spiritual issue is that God’s judgment is about to fall on sinners. Sexual sin, be it heterosexual or homosexual, along with the list of sins Paul mentions in Romans (e.g. gossips, slanderers, insolent, arrogant, vv. 29-30) and in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (e.g. greedy, drunkards) require one and the same solution.
In 1:29-31 Paul writes up a so-called vice list. Vice lists and virtue lists were a common figure of speech in that era, whereby the author would compile a list of behaviors and present them with little elaboration, in order to give his readers direction toward holiness and away from wickedness. One example from the Dead Sea Scrolls: “to the spirit of deceit belong greed, sluggishness in the service of justice, wickedness, falsehood, pride, haughtiness of heart, dishonesty, trickery, cruelty, much insincerity, impatience, much foolishness, etc.” (1QS IV, 9-11). Philo wrote one list that contains a whopping 147 elements. We have already mentioned 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; two other vice lists were likewise based were exclusion from the eschatological kingdom (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5). The fruit of the Spirit are presented in the form of a virtue list (Gal 5:22-23).
Paul mentions 20 elements in this list, ranging from breaking the Ten Commandments (“they disobey their parents”) to the mundane (“boasting”). If the greatest commandment of Torah was to love Yahweh with all one’s being (Deut 6:4), then to be a “God-hater” (v. 30) is the greatest form of wickedness. We might add that the “indifferent to God” are no less guilty.
Even people without the Torah have some sense of divine justice and that these behaviors are actionable, but they not only do them but cheer on others who practice them (v. 32).
Special Note: Evolution and Ethics. It has become fashionable to explain every type of human behavior as the legacy of some hypothetical evolutionary past. This sort of argumentation is by definition weak, since one can take just about anything about human nature and imagine some sort of reason why it was needed by an ancient ancestor. Do you get irritable and angry when it’s past your dinner time? Well then, this is because your primate ancestors needed a boost of adrenaline to go out and hunt some animal quickly in order to preserve his progeny. Do men desire more than one mate? It is because they have the primeval drive to breed with many females in order to continue the species through as many children as possible. An article I recently read stated that women gossip because that is how their ancestors built a network of friends and gained information in order to survive: and thus, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the behavior.
Any behavior can in theory be justified, through anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology. But our higher standard of what we should practice and what reject has to be God’s Word – he alone as our creator is able to give us the truth and perspective that we lack.
B. God will in fact condemn all who sin, whether they claim to respect the Law of Moses or no (2:1-3:8)
Up until this point, both the church and the synagogue would have been in general agreement: the Gentiles are not only sinful, but they are astonishingly so. Their judgment is deserved, and God’s wrath will indeed fall on them. But now Paul changes direction and speaks to another group: Israel apart from Christ.
In the city of Rome, where roughly 95% of the population was pagan, where there were idol temples in every neighborhood, where sex and carousing and violence were daily events in the home and on the night-time streets, the Jews could imagine that the people of the covenant were set apart, a colony of God’s people within a metropolis of the lost.
This exceptionalism did not exactly lead Israel to think of itself as “saved by works.” It is a common misconception that, since Christians believe in a gospel by grace alone (hence the slogan, sola gratia), that Israel therefore must have believed in a gospel by works alone (a sort of solis operibus). In fact, Israel has always believed that if anyone is saved, it is by the mercy of God. A better description of Judaism is that God established a covenant with Abraham; and his descendants are God’s people, so long as the males are circumcised, and the individuals keep the Torah. If and when a Jew sinned – and they believed that all sin at some time or another – then the Law even made provisions about how to repent and offer the appropriate sacrifice. For the Jew, then, the central concern was not, “What must I do to be saved?” but rather “What must I avoid so as not to miss out on salvation?”
This theology gave the Isralites much cause to hope. For example, the Testament of Moses was a document supposedly given by Moses to Joshua; in fact, it is more or less contemporary with the New Testament, and has a typically Jewish perspective on the end of the age –
Then his kingdom will appear throughout his whole creation. Then the devil will have an end. For God Most High will surge forth, the Eternal One alone. In full view will he come to work vengeance on the nations. Yea, all their idols will he destroy…Then will you be happy, O Israel! And you will mount up above the necks and the wings of an eagle. Yea, all things will be fulfilled. (T. Moses 10.1, 7-8 [Charlesworth])
When God appears, he will destroy the idolatrous Gentiles (the sort you find in Rom 1:18-32!) and rescue Israel, at least that part of Israel that has not gone apostate.
Paul must have believed something similar as a youth, but he came to reject it. Of his own experience he later would say that, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14). But what happened? When he met Christ on the way to Damascus, his world was turned upside-down, and he realized that he was the greatest of sinners, despite his careful obedience to Torah (1 Tim 1:15).
Paul’s argument here makes sense only if all Israel was already lost without Jesus Christ. Step by step, he begins to prove the “why” of 1:16, by dealing with this point: If the Jews regard themselves as members of the covenant, and if that the covenant is enough to lead them to final salvation in the resurrection, then why does Paul squander precious time and resources by evangelizing them? This is no mere hypothetical question. When Paul finally arrived in Rome (Acts 28:17-28), he immediately set up a meeting with the Jewish leaders in order to explain his gospel to them.
In our Bibles there is a useful division made between 1:32 y 2:1, a “speed bump” in the argument. In 2:1 it appears that he is no longer speaking of Gentiles, given that Gentiles were just said to approve those who excel in sin. Rather, here are people who disapprove of sinners, but ironically they too are wicked: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (2:1); “so when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (2:3).
And who is the “you” (singular, thus the KJV “thou art”) in 2:1 and other verses? Bit by bit, between v. 1 and v. 9, he gives us to understand that he is still thinking of an invisible gathering of Jews, probably dictating in his letter the sort of thing he said in the synagogues. He uses a literary device known as “apostrophe”, a rhetorical device that has been popular for many centuries. With it an author or speaker addresses someone or some group that is not present, using the second person (you, singular or plural) as if they were there with him, and using a sharp tone to denounce them. Someone might use this device in a speech in the UN, for example: “And you terrorists! Know that we will not tolerate your despicable actions!” But when members of the audience turn and glance around, they whisper to one another that there are no terrorists present in the meeting room! No, it’s just that the speaker is using “apostrophe” to make a point.
It does not impress God favorably if an individual condemns sin in another, not when he is doing the same sort of transgressions. God’s forgiveness is not extended to those who are spiritually well-informed or are discerning or who have moral “good taste.” One must do righteous deeds, otherwise that person too will face God’s wrath (2:2, 3, 5). Thus, in light of the coming judgment, he should spend his energies coming to grips with how God’s mercy might lead to his salvation (2:4).
Paul now uses a verse from the Jewish Scriptures to demonstrate to a Jewish hearer that he is right in what he says. Psalm 62:12 says that God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” The emphasis is on the verb “do.” What is it that you actually do? The synagogue taught that if Jews did not stray far, then they are safe. Not so, says Paul, not according to the Bible, which says that sin is sin, and that any sin leaves us open for damnation – this will be his conclusion to the matter in 3:23. If the gospel is for the Jews first (2:10; 1:16), then “distress” also is for them first (2:9). He concludes that God has no “favorites” in the world, not at the final judgment, and that apart from the gospel no-one has an advantage (2:11). At this point, some rabbis in Paul’s imaginary audience will certainly begin to murmur, since it is a fundamental of Torah that Israel is indeed God’s chosen people as descendants of Abraham (Gen 18:19) and thus “advantaged”.
In 2:10 the apostle touches on a topic that might strike us as un-Pauline, since it seems to connect salvation to good works: in the eschatological final judgment there will be “glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good.” In part this is a hypothetical, since in this section he is proving that 100% of humanity falls short of “does good.” Nevertheless, this is a theme he will pick up at 2:14-15, 29 – that there is a subset of humanity, composed of Jews and Gentiles, who in fact are walking in righteousness, not through their own efforts, but because of the work of God in changing their hearts (so Cranfield, pp. 1.150-53).
Paul now compares the relative states of Jews and Gentiles, giving special attention to lost Jews and righteous Gentiles. First, he reiterates the truth of 1:18-32, that Gentiles without Torah will be condemned apart from the Torah, that is, they will not be held liable for laws that they had never received. The other side of coin, however, is disturbing for the Jews, since “all who sin under the law (or, as has the CEV, “everyone who knows what it says”) will be lost.” In fact, people who are privileged with Torah will be more, not less, liable when judgment comes.
The apostle offers one of the fundamental truths both of the Old and New Covenants – “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” (v. 13, emphasis added). He uses the verb “hear” instead of what we might say, “read” the Bible, since most Jews and early Christians received its teaching orally. James has the same principle – “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). And the Lord Jesus taught the same in his Sermon on the Mount – the man who built his house on the rock is the one who does what Jesus says (Matt 7:24-26). Paul is beginning to introduce an element of doubt: “Of course,” he implies, “I affirm that you hear the Torah; what I cannot affirm is that you actually obey the Torah.”
But there is another side: Gentiles who “do by nature things required by the law.” Taken in isolation, this seems either nonsensical or, as we saw in 2:10, purely hypothetical, a “what would happen if”, followed by, “well, I suppose that people might follow a sort of law, even though they don’t have the Torah; but they don’t do so, because they don’t have a righteous nature.” Others think Paul is speaking of Gentiles doing relatively good things, but not consistently (Dunn, p. 1.99; Calvin, pp. 96-97), although that hardly helps Paul to make his point. No, the linchpin here is that Gentile believers in Christ receive a new nature – what Paul will call “being in Christ”, “dying with Christ”, “risen with Christ” later in the epistle. Paul uses language that belongs to the New Covenant (see also our comments on Rom 5:5), especially the key concept that God will write his commandments, not just on stone tablets but on people’s hearts: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). And so Paul is trying to entice the Jewish fictional audience to consider, All Gentiles are wicked, but what would happen if God rewrote their basic nature? Would they not be given salvation on the day of judgment?
Practical Thought. Here is a “Bible church”; let’s drop in. When the service begins, someone reads one of the psalms. They sing choruses that are based on Bible passages. There is a time for people to stand up and share how a certain Bible verse has helped them this week. The children are taken off to Sunday School, where they learn Bible stories, and memorize Bible verses. Meanwhile the pastor goes to the pulpit and announces that he will be speaking on a Bible text. Everyone looks it up in their own Bible, or they can read it off the screen. He explains what the Bible means and how it should affect us. He closes the service with a benediction taken from the Bible. The bulletin proclaims that the church is dedicated to the Bible and therefore is built upon the rock. What is more, “Bible” is part of the church’s name.
Let us admire this church’s single-mindedness, especially given that so many churches use the Bible just to give the occasional embellishment, while the preacher goes off in some random doctrine.
Nevertheless, a congregation is not righteous for having listened to the Bible, but by doing it. If it was true for Israel that they would be condemned despite hearing and teaching the Torah, such will also be the case for people who possess both Testaments in their own language, even more so: all who sin with a knowledge of the Bible, by that same Bible will they be judged. A church full of people who do not practice the Bible is built on the sand and should fear for the coming storm.
It is also true that preachers tend to condemn sins of “The Others”, that is, people who don’t tend to go to that congregation or people who have little recognition inside the church. I have heard many sermons that condemned gay marriage, but very few that treated the likelier sins of the congregation, such as internet porn, domestic violence, incest. I have heard many criticisms of workers who are lazy and talk back to their bosses, but maybe only one or two where the pastor reproaches employers for providing unlivable wages or dangerous working conditions. Churches that avoid uncomfortable topics are not biblical and should beware of God’s judgment just as should non-evangelical groups.
“I hate double-minded people [i.e., hypocrites],” David wrote, “but I love your Law. You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word. Away from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commands of my God!” (119:113-115). How excellent these reflections, Paul might have thought. But how much better if someone really did this, and consistently! He will show that no-one obeys Torah, and he will use the Jewish Scripture itself to prove his point.
Paul now makes explicit, who his fictional audience is – the Jews (v. 17). The Jewish synagogue was a house for prayer and also the reading of the Scriptures (or Tanach) – every week there would be a reading from the Law of Moses (Torah), and then one from the Prophets. The faithful Jews would listen, memorize, and in theory put it into practice. Very well, says Paul, and he lists this ability to access Torah one of the wonderful aspects of being Jewish (3:2; 9:4). But what good is hearing the Law if one does not do it?
Paul heightens the “apostrophe” (see under 2:1) or fictional address to Jews with “you then”, giving some examples of how people claim to respect the Law but do not obey it. He appeals to the synagogues’ optimism, for example, that a good teacher of Torah can enlighten a Gentile and lead him to conversion. Well and good, but what does that do for the teacher if he himself does not live by Torah? The reader might have expected Paul to mention some minor points of the Law, but he moves directly to some major infractions, such as theft (2:21), adultery (2:22), robbing temples (is this vandalizing pagan temples, or holding back tithes, or stealing from the fund for the Jerusalem temple? 2:22 – it is not certain), dishonoring God (2:23).
Greek and Roman writers regularly made fun of Jews and their God: supposedly the Jews kept aloof from others because they hated humanity; helped needy Jews but not Gentiles; mutilated their genitals; refused to eat pork; polluted temples; they were poor and dirty (according to the sharp-tongued Juvenal in his Satires 3, in the following century); they engaged in the occult practice of interpreting dreams (Satires 6); they were too lazy to work every seventh day. Josephus’s writings, in particular his Against Apion, were designed to present and defend the history of Israel against this anti-Jewish feeling.
Since Juvenal would hold little authority with Israelites, Paul now brings in as a witness none other than the prophet Isaiah, in order to prove that Jews cause the name of God to be slandered – “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Isa 52:5). This is from a chapter that for Paul and the early church was messianic, just two verses away from the coming of the gospel, the “good news” of 52:7.
In rabbinic writings too, one encounters the tension between (merely) hearing and doing, that is, at least in theory nobody was in favor of religious hypocrisy. But we must not misunderstand Paul here: his point is not that hypocrisy is evil and that his fellow Israelites need to renounce it and live more sincerely. Rather, he is proving that if sin brings down the judgment of God on Gentiles, then wrath will also fall from heaven when Jewish people sin – and sin they do. In that way Paul rejects completely the paradigm of Second Temple Judaism, as reflected in the Testament of Moses (see above) and announces doom for all who are apart from Christ.
The reader should consult our comments under Romans 11 for further help in these verses. Paul is saying that only those Jews who are spiritually circumcised (see Col 2:11-12) can claim to be true Jews; they have experienced the New Covenant (see our comments on Rom 5:5; Wilckens, pp. 196-198). Gentiles too are spiritually circumcised, as shown in Colossians 2, but Paul does not draw the conclusion here that believing Gentiles are the true Israel.
Paul is posing his own answer to an age-old question that occupies the rabbis to this day: “Who is a Jew?” (the Hebrew expression is Mihu Yehu’di). The traditional answer today is that if one’s mother was Jewish, then you are too, but the topic is a difficult one, given that many Jews are secular, or children of mixed marriages. Some strict rabbis in effect demand that people who always thought of themselves as Jewish must “re-convert” to the faith. The question has become even more relevant since the formation of the Jewish state of Israel, which has the Law of Return enshrined in its constitution, that all Jews have the right to become citizens. That’s fine, but how does one define a Jew?
According to Paul, only a believer in Christ/the Messiah is a true descendant of Abraham, and thus authentically Jewish.
In order to open the door to the gospel, Paul first has to close every other door, every alternate, to belief in Christ. For the Gentile, the gospel is by definition the “gospel” or “good news” (thus the Greek word euangelion, see 1:15-16). But the Gentile cannot begin to appreciate what the gospel means until he hears the “bad news” that God is furious with him or her and will eventually pour out his wrath for their evil thoughts, words, and deeds. And for the Jew who stands to one side, nodding his head about Gentile wickedness, there is a double dose of “bad news” for him, since he should have known better, and the wrath of God is on the schedule for his life as well.
In order to maintain a balance, Paul now goes on to mention the benefits of having been born Jewish; he is anticipating what he will say more broadly in 9:4-5. Here in 3:2 “the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God”, that is the Old Testament Scriptures. One would think that that was enough motivation for them to be living in repentance and faith in God and his Messiah. But Paul is about to demonstrate in Romans 3 that what was meant to be a blessing turns into a curse if Israel disobeys its own Bible. Jesus made the same point – “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
Paul raises some questions with his imaginary opponent. First, he wonders whether the unfaithfulness of Israel as a whole means that God’s promises to them were false (v. 3). Not at all, since the Bible itself (Ps 51:4 is quoted in v. 4) anticipated this sort of tension between human failure and divine faithfulness. Second, he wants to refute a “slanderous claim” in 3:8, that someone is charging the apostle with being an antinomian, that is, one who imagines that the ideal Christian life consists in sinning in order that God’s mercy is highlighted (see also Acts 21:20-21; 2 Pet 3:14-16 and other instances throughout church history). Paul completely rejects this notion in 6:1ff. among other texts.
Paul’s gospel is that if a Jew sins, then he or she is a sinner and liable to divine wrath (3:5); and if someone wants to argue that he is an exception because he is a descendant from Abraham, then even more is it true that “Their condemnation is just!” (3:8b)
C. Even the Old Testament proves that Jews are equally as guilty as Gentiles (3:9-21)
Paul continues to press home his main point, using words such as “alike”, “all”, “there is no one.” His point is that everyone is fatally sinful apart from the gospel – he starts with “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:9b), then summarizes that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:19b, emphasis added); and adds in the famous verse that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23, emphasis added).
Paul here uses another rhetorical device, a catena, from the Latin, meaning “a chain.” It is a list of verses about one theme, quoted simply and without commentary, to prove a point. In 1:18-32 he did not bother to cite Bible verses to prove that Gentiles were sinners – one needed only to open one’s eyes and take a peek out the window to see the very obvious! But when he wants to prove that Jews are sinners, he takes his imaginary audience to their ultimate authority, the Hebrew Scriptures, in large part the book of Psalms.
In 3:10-18 he starts off with “There is no one righteous, not even one”, quoting Psalm 14:1-3 (Ps 53:1-3 is the same text); then Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7; Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 36:1. The student of Romans would do well to look up these verses in their original settings. The language of these verses is as shocking as it is universal – Paul is quoting verses that in the Old Testament were directed toward Jewish people and implying that their sins are equal in wickedness to the sins of Gentiles in the first century AD. In the Isaiah passage, God is specifically condemning the Israelites for their sins, saying that “your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isa 59:2). If that is true for Israel in the days of Isaiah, then isn’t it also true for the days of Paul?
Practical Thought: It is a good lesson for the Christian of today, that we should think and pray about how best to share the gospel with the world. Paul did not quote the Scripture when he was preaching to Gentile groups, since they did not regard it as authoritative (see Acts 14:14-17; 17:22-31); but in the synagogue he went right to the Bible (Acts 13:14-41). A modern example is from the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō in his book Life of Jesus. He recognized that it was very difficult to explain the significance of Jesus in his society. Finally, he decided that the best opening was to emphasis, firstly, that Jesus died for the love of his disciples. He secondly underscored the treachery of the apostles when they abandoned him at Gethsemane, and then that Jesus forgave them when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Even so, Endō says, one way to begin to explain the gospel in Japan is to say, salvation means to experience Christ’s love, and sin means to abandon him.
“Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law” (v. 19a). If you truly believe in the Torah as Paul did (Rom 7:7 – “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law”) – and the faithful Jews must say they certainly did – then you have to believe even those verses that say how wicked you are. Paul has driven them into a corner: either they accept they are sinners, apostate from Torah; or they reject that the Scripture says about them, making them again apostate from Torah. When Paul says that “through the law we become conscious of our sin” (v. 20b) he is thinking concretely of what he has just demonstrated in 3:9-18.
Again, Paul uses the words “everyone”, “no one.” The language of “every mouth may be silenced” has to do with judgment day, but it also has application for people today who want to boast of their spiritual performance (see 3:27).
3:20a opens the door to what Paul will teach in the rest of this section concerning “justification” – “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.” Some exegetes take this to mean that no-one should feel confident before a holy God because they observe those particular rituals that set Israel apart from the world, beginning with circumcision (Dunn, pp. 1.153-155); this would mean that Israel erred in being proud of their covenant status before God. Nevertheless, Paul does not make any separation here between the ritual law and the moral law, as do Christians today: when he speaks of the righteousness of God, the scope is its broadest (so Calvin, pp. 132-33; see especially Stott, pp. 109-111). He deals in Romans with every sin from gossip (1:29) all the way to idolatry (1:22-23). When he proves that no-one can obey God’s commands, he goes to one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet” (7:7). We conclude that Paul means in 3:20a that “no-one will be declared righteous on judgment day on the basis that they have obeyed anything that the Torah demands of them”, because everyone “does evil” (2:9).
We will define “justify” (the Greek is dikaioō) in our comments on 3:26.
Additional Notes: Many years ago, we would see the bumper sticker, “Jesus is the Answer!” Later on, another came out: “If Jesus is the Answer – Then What was the Question?” It is the same here: Paul has to invest more space to prove the bad news, in order to show the Jews that they too are in hot water. In Romans 1:18-3:31, Paul dedicated approximately 10 verses to describing the Solution (the good news or euangelion). He then goes on to dictate approximately 68 verses to the Problem, that is, the bad news. Of these 68 verses, 15 have to do with Gentiles, and 53 with Jews. That is, it’s very simple to demonstrate to the Romans that their Solution was Christ (they already were Christians!); it is relatively easy to demonstrate that the Gentiles deserve God’s condemnation; but it is relatively difficult to demonstrate that the non-Christian Jews also deserve condemnation, and what is more, there exists no other way of salvation for them.
In the 1930s, the famous English theologian C. H. Dodd wrote about the (supposedly) bad conscience that plagued Paul, in two articles called “The Mind of Paul: A Psychological Approach.” At the time the theories of Sigmund Freud were very much in play, and so Dodd wanted to interpret Paul’s conversion from that perspective. His idea was that Saul was going around under a mountain of guilt because of his cruel persecution of the Christians. Then, on the road to Damascus, he suffered a crisis, a nervous collapse. So, what are Dodd and some others saying? That he realized that he had a Big Problem, and suddenly he decided that Jesus was the Solution.
But with respect to Paul, the Bible indicates that the reverse was true, as he himself spells out in Philippians 3:7-11: he first of all encountered Christ, and then only later came to understand that, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It is the same impression he gives Galatians 1:11-17, and in Acts as well; only in hindsight did Paul realize that he had been a gross sinner: If Christ died to redeem me, then logically it must also be true that I sinned and was falling far short of God’s glory.
The gospel states that our principal problem in life is that we are cut off from God and thus awaiting his condemnation. The solution is Christ. One alternative message we hear today is the gospel of inner healing: One’s principal problem is that the individual needs to be healed from past hurts, usually from childhood. This trauma scars our relationships with others, with our self, and with God. God is there as the Great Therapist. We should avoid talking about God’s judgment, since that notion is merely a projection of one’s own shame or past hurt. If consistently applied, then there should be no interest in the new birth or the new nature in Christ, since that idea is based on the false and toxic claim that we are fundamentally broken or unlovable. Rather, deliverance and change comes from God’s loving and therapeutic presence, to improve us but not to demand that we repent.
It does the Christian good to remember that Paul’s original audience for this epistle consisted of people who were literal slaves, who were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, from a legalistic background, robbed, cheated, abandoned by parents and so forth. Christians then survived what we do today, and often with fewer resources.
Christians indeed may benefit from counseling, but if the counseling model sets aside the Bible agenda for change, either by replacing the true gospel or by diminishing it, we stand in jeopardy of losing clarity in our relationship with the savior, and trading in the power of the Holy Spirit for self-help.
- In this section Paul shows the fatal nature of all sin, whether they are thought of as minor or major. What sins do we attempt excuse, whether in our lives or in the life of the church?
- We have said that people invent other “gospels” as a substitute for the one true message of salvation. What new gospels have you encountered, and how did they distract from the saving message of Christ?
- Shūsaku Endō worked to make the gospel understandable in Japan. What are some ways we can explain the relevance of the gospel in our culture without compromising its fundamental message?
 This untranslated work is available here: Origen, Fragmenta ex commentariis in epistulam i ad Corinthios, ed. C. Jenkins, “Documents: Origen on I Corinthians,” JTS 9 & 10 (1908).
“Romans Commentary, Romans 1:18-3:20,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica