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Paul begins Romans by stating the problem of sin and enumerating a few specific sins. His conclusion in chapter 3 is that both the Jews and the Gentiles are under the wrath of God.
Lesson Twenty-nine: Romans
IV. Content of the Letter (part 1)
A. Salutation (1:1-7)
B. Thanksgiving (1:8-15)
C. The Main Theme (1:16-17)
D. The Big Problem (1:18-3:20)
1. Part 1 (1:18-31)
c. Sins against society
2. Part 2 (2:1-3:8)
3. The Conclusion (3:9-20)
a. The Jew is under the wrath of God.
b. The Gentile is under the wrath of God.
Lecture: Romans: Problem
Now we’ll deal with the content of this great letter. We already talked about the opening salutation, much enlarged over any of the others, including materials that prepare the church for the reason of the letter. He deals with his apostolic authority there. In vv. 8-15 we have the thanksgiving, and then most scholars are pretty well convinced that when we get to v. 16, we have a kind of a summary of the theme of the letter, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ [a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4]”
In 1:18-3:20, he presents the major problem that humanity faces. And he’s going to deal with both the Gentile world and the Jewish world. If I were to tell you for instance that there is a wonderful new surgery that has developed, very painful, that requires you to stay in a hospital bed for 2 weeks, that it has a slow recovery but a 100% chance of recovery – once I described it, how many of you would really be interested in it? How many would be interested if I said “You are all about to die of a disease. There’s only one cure for it,” and then I describe it? Then you’d pay attention. That’s’ what Paul does in the letter. He doesn’t go on and talk about the cure until he talks about the problem. And when you realize the problem you have, you’re much more open to the cure.
When I had major back surgery, I didn’t hear a doctor say, “You know what? We have this new kind of back surgery, and it really is painful, but there’s a good chance of success.” I wasn’t going to be interested in that. What he said instead was, “You need this surgery or you’ll probably never be able to walk again.” Then all of the sudden I became very interested in the cure.
And so what Paul does is to present the stark problem before the cure. In other words, he deals with the problem of sin and our failure before God. And he’ll divide that into two parts, since the world is divided into two parts. He’s going to talk about the problem of sin with regard to Jewish world, but first he’s going to deal with the Gentile world – the guilt of the Gentile world, the big problem. Beginning at v. 18, he starts right away, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men, who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” That’s the problem. You’re under the wrath of God and you have sinned. Verse 20 talks about their being without excuse. And time and time again, there is a constant theme that is repeated. We see it in v. 24, “Therefore God gave them up,” v. 26, “For this reason, God gave them up,” and v. 28, “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up.” These are terrible statements. Not only is their condition desperate and under the wrath of God, but God gave them up to all sorts of things. And what we have here is a description of the sins of the Gentile world.
Couldn’t the Jews also fit here? Not really. What’s being described in v. 19 is not the kind of thing that you would say to Jewish people. “You’re under the wrath of God because …,” and then when you get into the first two major divisions of sin (which I’ll describe in a minute), they would simply say that this doesn’t involve them.
The first one, in vv. 19 ff. is idolatry. There is an element of natural revelation in which people can know not only that God exists, but the greatness of his power and deity. It’s out there in natural revelation. It’s not enough to reveal how we can be saved, but it’s natural enough to reveal that there is a God, and that God is great and glorious. The result is that they have no excuse – even a Gentile, even a person who’s never read or heard the Bible has enough of a witness in creation around him of God’s existence. And he knows enough about that, that they have some inkling about what God is like. They don’t honor God, and they become futile in their thinking (v. 21), claiming to be wise they became fools (v. 22). And here’s their first sin for which God will give them up (1:23): They “… exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” The first thing they’re guilty of is idolatry. And you don’t have to refine idolatry, and speak of idolatry as placing something else before God -- we’re talking about just crass idolatry. All you have to do is go to the Parthenon area, and to Mars Hill. Acts tells us that Paul went there, and he was crushed. They were so idolatrous they had a statue to a God they don’t even know about yet -- they were worried about leaving one out. So you have all this kind of idolatry – think about the kind of idolatry you find in Southeast Asian temples. And people would remark about the beauty of some of the temples, but Paul would just think about the horror of what it reveals about their having made the incorruptible God into the likeness of corruptible things.
A Jew would say, “You’re not talking about us, Paul.” And they would be right – Jews were not generally guilty of idolatry. You could argue that in the Old Testament they made idols, but when 587 BC and the fall of Jerusalem came, they went into exile and battle, and after that idolatry’s a dead issue – no more. They could play around with idolatry until they were thrown into the midst of it, and then they realized the absurdity of it. Idolatry is not a problem after that.
In verses 24 and following, another sin for which God gave them up,
“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. For this reason God gave them up [the second one] to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Again, a Jew would say, “You’re not talking about us, Paul.” Homosexuality was not a problem in Judaism. It was rampant in the Greek world, very dominant in the Greek world. And Paul sees this as sinful, and it’s actually a punishment that God gives them up to this kind of thing. He writes them off, so to speak. Again, that typified the Gentile world, but it doesn’t deal with the Jew. But he’ll deal with the Jew later.
The third area, beginning in vv. 28-32, (the first was idolatry, the second was sexual immorality, especially homosexuality), “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and improper conduct.” And now we have a listing of sins which are sins against society in one way or another, “…wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.” So now here you have a listing of the sins of which the Gentile world is guilty: homosexuality, and before that idolatry, and afterward, these various kinds of social sins.
When you read this, is it true that every Gentile was an idolater who practiced homosexuality and these other social sins? There were some noble Gentiles. We’re not talking so much about every individual in the world; we’re talking about the Gentile world as typified this way, and it’s true. This did typify the Gentile world. We’ll switch later on, and when he talks about the Jew. He’ll talk about Jewish failures and sins; and not every Jew was like this, either. But this was the kind of thing that typified the Jewish world. So, we’re not talking about every individual being like this; we’re talking about the Gentile world in general, and this is what that world represents. You’re seen as a group. Not every American may look like an ugly American when he goes to another country, but a lot of them do. And the result is that America is seen as like this. There are exceptions, and there exceptions like this in the Gentile world. But the big problem is that God has given them up because of their sin. They’re lost, they’re hopeless, they’re already under God’s wrath. God’s wrath in the future, in the final Day of Judgment will be a continuation and an intensification of the present wrath, but God has given them up in some ways to this.
One biblical writer, C. H. Dodd, interprets “God gave them up” as “God just forgot about them, and is letting them stew in their own juices.” This seems to go further than that. It looks like an act of God, in which he gives them over to even more sin in this regard – that the punishment for this kind of behavior is to be given up to even more intense forms of this kind of behavior. And so, after 1:18-31, the Gentile world stands condemned before God, and in need of some miraculous forgiveness and grace.
A Jew who read this (not a Jewish Christian, but just a plain Jew) would have probably said, “Right on, Paul! That’s exactly what those scoundrel Gentiles are like.” And so Paul now has to deal with the Jew, especially in light of the fact that the Jew feels that he has a unique position with God. And so he writes (2:1), “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another. For in passing judgment upon them you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the same things.” Paul’s not saying that they do everything that we just talked about; but they do some of the same things. You’re not guilty of idolatry, you’re not guilty of homosexuality; but what about these other sins, all mentioned beginning in 1:29: wickedness, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless? You who condemn the Gentiles for these sins – some of you are guilty of this, too. So you do the same things. And I think the “same things” being referred to in 2:1 refers to the third kinds of sins that Paul refers to, the sins against society, because the first two, you wouldn’t condemn the Jew for.
Continuing with vv. 2:2-11,
“Now, we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. [Yes, that’s true.] But do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God? [Well, yes, I’m a Jew; I’m part of the covenant people.] Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience [in other words, do you presume on your covenant relationship? that you are Abraham’s offspring? Do you presume on having been baptized into the Christian faith?] Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
“For he will render to each one according to his works: [v. 7] 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 factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.  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 are a couple of important points in these last four verses. Verses 7, 8, 9, and 10 are what we call a “chiasmus”. A chiasmus is when you have a list of statements that go A, B (sometimes you have more, but here you have these), and then you go B, A. So the thing you’re talking about in A will be repeated at the very end; and what you talk about in B will be repeated again right after that. In A, you have “those who in patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Now if you jump to 10, here you have the “…glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek,” A and A. For theme B, v. 8, “Those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury,” and then in v. 9 it repeats that same thing, B, again, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.” So you have A, B, B, A. A is those who seek glory and immortality, eternal life; [B:] for the factious there’s wrath and fury; [B:] tribulation and distress to those who do evil; [A:] to those who seek good, glory and honor. A, B, B, A. You see that there.
The question here now, though, is: Does Paul really believe that Gentiles and Jews can, by patience and well-doing seek for glory and honor, and receive eternal life? He says in another passage that there’s no righteous – no not one -- but by grace you are saved through faith. He says that this is not your own doing; it’s the gift of God. Verses 7 and 10 seem to conflict with justification by faith. Verses 8 and 9 are not a problem, but those who seek to do good receive glory and honor? Is it by works?
Well, there are two ways of interpreting this. One is that this is entirely hypothetical. If a person truly sought glory, honor, immortality -- if they truly did good -- then they would obtain hypothetically eternal life; but since all have sinned, this is not hypothetically possible. I don’t think, however, that’s the best way of interpreting it. I think what he’s talking about is straightforward: those who “…in patience and well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality [by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ being understood], he will give eternal life.” The same goes for v. 10, “… glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good ….” Those who follow Jesus Christ and seek to keep his will, they will have glory, peace and honor. The assumption here is that you have to add that these good people are those who believe in Jesus and seek to follow him. And I would think that makes sense, because if you’re a good person, when you hear the gospel you believe it. And you’re truly, honestly seeking hope and immortality, then the good news of the gospel is something you believe and you hold on to. So, I don’t think it’s simply theoretical. I think he’s saying that there’s judgment coming upon Jew and Greek -- there’s no difference. If they do evil and abide in it, judgment and wrath comes upon them. On the other hand, for those others (Jew or Greek, it makes no difference), there is eternal life and glory and honor if they do good and follow Jesus Christ. So I think you have to assume that those who seek those things would be following Jesus. I don’t know how else you would look at it.
That notion I think is reinforced by a repetition of that same idea in vv. 12 ff., “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” All are guilty. So if you don’t have the law you’ll be judged not by the law, but you’ll be judged by the knowledge you have without the law. But you’ll be condemned. If you have the law, if you know the commandments, you’ll be judged by that. It is not the (v. 13) “… hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who shall be justified.” It looks very much like the writings of James later on. Verse 14, “ …when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature 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.” Verses 25 and following seem to repeat what we looked at in vv. 7-10,
“Circumcision is indeed of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 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, but the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from men, but from God.”
So those who keep the law must be those who are believers, whether they’re Jewish or not. Gentiles who keep the law now because they have come to faith in Christ: their uncircumcision is of no matter. It’s as if they are circumcised in their hearts, and that’s what really counts. People who are circumcised but do not obey the law and Jesus Christ: they’re essentially uncircumcised, because God looks not on the foreskin of one’s male sexual organ; he looks upon the condition of the heart. And real circumcision in the truest sense involves the heart being circumcised or not.
In 3:1-9, he then brings this to a conclusion, “What then is the advantage of the Jew?” Is there any advantage that a Jew has at all, if they’re both condemned and all fall short? “Of what value is circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God [they have the Scriptures]. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? No, not at all. … But [on the other hand] if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say? That God is unjust? By no means!”
At the end of 3:1-8, he comes to bring a summary. One thing that keeps coming up is whether there’s any advantage in being a Jew. Time and time again, there’s something that breaks in, and he deals with a little of that, but he never completes it. He will complete it in chapter 7. In chapter 7 he’ll bring that up and deal with it. [But if you look at for instance the outline here, you have under 7, “(concerning the law)” on the next page.] So a number of times the issue has come up, and will come up again. What about the Jew? Verse 9: “Are Jews any better off? No, not at all.” Well isn’t there anything advantageous in being a Jew? Yes, but …. And then in chapter 7 he’ll finally deal with that, but he won’t deal with it until then.
In vv. 10 ff., then, we have this famous conclusion [beginning v. 9b],
“… we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before them.’”
Now, he summarizes in vv. 19 -20 the fact that, if he can prove that the Jew is guilty and in need of grace, then everybody is in need of grace. If the Jew’s in trouble, and needs God’s grace, the Gentile is more so. So he spends time now and brings this to a conclusion (v. 19), “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” So he concludes here that the Jewish guilt, even though they have the law, means that the whole world stands guilty.
So now you have the problem described in two parts; the Jew is under the wrath of God, and the Gentile is under the wrath of God. What then? And then in 3:21 he’ll introduce the remedy, as such.