Romans 1:18-3:20 is a section of Paul’s thinking that can be incredibly challenging to wrap your mind around (at least I have found myself feeling challenged). However, once his conversation is framed properly, the substance of what he is trying to say begins to pop-out in vivid detail and the brilliance of his thought becomes visible. It is essential not only that we see the proper frame for Paul’s thinking but that we are seeing properly the question or problem behind Paul’s answer or solution. Otherwise we will distort what he is saying or misunderstand his logic.
To understand Paul’s thought we have to keep in mind that he is writing as person who is drawing his worldview from his Jewish background. He does not see himself as starting a new religion from scratch but rather as someone elucidating a vital twist in his existing one (Judaism). He sees Jesus as the climax of a story in which he (Paul) is a participant… a story that goes back to creation – one that is framed and understood through the covenant (relational contract) God made with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15) and that continued through history in God’s relationship with Israel (Abraham’s descendants). If you lose sight of the significance of the story of Judaism (Abraham, God’s promise to Abraham, the covenant and Israel’s history with God via the covenant, etc.) Paul will make very little sense.
So here are some really important highly simplified things to keep in mind:
Assumed in Jewish thought... God knows that humanity is screwed without His mercy. Humanity, when thinking clearly, also realizes this. Specifically, A) if there is a God who created us, we are accountable to that God. B) All of us have done things to destroy God’s creation and have gone against God’s intentions and thus violated our role / relationship with God. C) Sucks to be us. We rightly deserve God’s judgment (wrath)… unless God does something remarkable and something we don’t deserve. God does just that!
Thus God creates a family, a unique people group, that He will work through to fix the problems of this world. This group is intended to be a community that will be “a light to the nations,” a community that God uses to demonstrate His goodness, holiness and blessing to the rest of the earthly communities. This is what God set out to do with Abraham. Central to this idea – made clear through Moses – is the idea that this unique family will be a community of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness along with ultimate vindication were promised to those who remained faithful to the covenant – which included the idea of participating in the sacrificial system. (I wish I had more time to write about some of the important ideas within this system – which is central to Judaism and to Paul’s thinking.)
Keep in mind that the covenant was a “communal agreement.” The person’s choice was involved on two levels: 1) to belong or not belong to the covenant – it was possible to walk away… and many did. 2) To be a part of communally obeying the instructions God gave to the covenant community. The expectations of this covenant are laid out in Deuteronomy 28-30 (especially important to Paul’s thought it seems to me). The thrust of this passage is simply, “if you obey (communally), you will be communally blessed. If you disobey (communally), you will be communally under the curse – the wrath – of God, both now and at the “day of the Lord.” So obey!!!
An essential part of declaring that you were part of the “covenant community” were several tangible signs: 1) Circumcision – very tangible for men! 2) Possession of the Torah (having within your community the very covenant / contract paperwork – described as the “oracles of God” by Paul). 3) Unique Torah commands (which clearly marked out Jews as different from the surrounding people groups) specifically in mind are Sabbath keeping, festival observance, purity laws / kosher. These were all meant to indicate that you were serious about obedience.
The story of Israel is a story of blessing and curse (wrath)… perhaps it’s more honest (though sad) to say it was mostly a story of curse (wrath). Disobedience carried the day - Idolatry was a major problem, economic exploitation & injustice, hypocrisy – taking the name of YHWH but then embarrassing YHWH’s name among that nations, etc. So, instead of Israel (Abraham’s family) being a community under God’s blessing as God had intended, it was a community under God’s judgment / discipline / wrath / curse (See Deuteronomy 28-30 and read the whole Old Testament to be reminded!).
But there was hope. Part of the Deuteronomy 30 passage is focused on how God would restore the covenant community after they screwed up… God would remove the curse and return blessing – and in doing so somehow bring blessing to the whole world. The prophets pick up this theme and develop it more: Jeremiah 31, Isaiah 40-55, Ezekiel 36, etc. They referred to it as “The New Covenant.” The idea was a hopeful one. God would establish a king who rule over His righteous remnant (those who were truly in the covenant community) and these people would keep Torah – it would be written on their hearts, their hearts would be circumcised (apparently more important that physical circumcision).
Everybody knew this story in Israel. I suppose it was sometimes far from their mind, but the pattern was well established and people hoped for the day of the “New Covenant.” Within Jewish thought at the time of Jesus / Paul it must have seemed clear to most Jews that the way things were looked a whole lot more like “curse” than “blessing.” Although the exile - God’s punishment / wrath had been poured out on Israel 600 years earlier and then God had shown mercy by re-establishing their residency in Israel 70 years later, things weren’t put back together again. Clearly not… they were under foreign occupation.
So part of the historical setting in which Paul found himself was a Judaism that was fractured into “sects” that all were talking about a different way to restore the covenant community… and how to be sure that a person knew they were “in” the righteous remnant, that they “belonged” to the true covenant community – the community that God would enact forgiveness for, the people who would be vindicated at that judgment as being truly God’s people. The Pharisees were especially interested in purity and the boundary markers of Judaism: Circumcision, Sabbath, Purity / Kosher laws – all of which depended on the possession of Torah within the community. (Keep in mind that Paul had been trained as a Pharisee.)
Generally speaking, Jews could breakdown all of humanity into two categories:
Category 1) The True Jews: people who were sincerely part of the covenant community… the community that God would forgive and vindicate at the judgment. These are people who have their misdeeds forgiven and who have observed Torah and are thus judged as “righteous.” They are the people that God would set up as rulers / judges of the rest of the nations… the people who God would work through as His instrument for worldwide order, justice, restoration. In short, these are the people of blessing.
Category 2) The nations (Gentiles): people who were not Jewish who were generally considered to be lawless and under the judgment / wrath of God (rightly so for their idolatry, poor ethical behavior, etc.). These are the people of wrath / curse.
Now with all of this background, let’s go back to Romans 1:18-32… Paul’s Jewish (and Gentile-Christian) readers would easily identify with Paul’s critique of “the nations” (Gentiles). He was not saying anything controversial. These were people in “category 2” – marked out for the wrath / judgment of God by their flagrant sinfulness.
In Romans 2:1-29, Paul begins to enter into some more controversial waters with his Jewish readers. First he exposes the fact that people (whoever they are – Jew / Gentile) who make moral distinctions and speak condemningly of wrong behavior are, in a roundabout way, establishing the fact that there is a moral order to the universe to which they are subject (whether or not they know Torah or not). Thus, they are guilty of breaking this moral order. They shouldn’t think they will escape God’s judgment… after all, Paul quickly affirms, God will judge people on their life’s work – their deeds - (adjusted for what they know they are responsible for – Jew / Gentile). Just because God hasn’t brought the thunder and lightening in this moment doesn’t mean you are getting off scott free! God’s patience is supposed to lead you to repentance not cockiness.
Paul begins to lay the pieces down for a third category of people that I don’t think a typically Jewish audience would have had in mind as an option on the “judgment table.” – Paul introduces the mysterious “category 3.” He indicates that there are going to be people who don’t explicitly know or possess the Torah, who aren’t marked out as being a part of the “covenant community” (no circumcision, Sabbath, purity / dietary laws) who actually do what the Torah requires (the ethical substance of the Torah – “requirements” of the Torah) and who are forgiven, vindicated and celebrated at the judgment day. Who are these mysterious people? They aren’t “category 1” folks and they don’t sound like “category 2”… hmmm….
Now we have begun to get to the question that Paul is trying to answer. He is saying two things in Romans 2:17-29, 3:9-20:
1) What Jews were depending on – that they were in “category 1” and that the people in “category 1” would have good news at the judgment day - is in deep trouble on all counts. To be in this “covenant community” of ethnically / culturally defined Judaism is not good news according to Paul’s argument… it is bad news. The supposed covenant community (ethnic / cultural Judaism) is under curse and wrath because they have not kept up their end of the bargain. – They “broke” the covenant! They are as bad off as the Gentiles – but worse! – Remember, God is going to judge people on what they know!! They knew better, they were warned… they had the Torah, the prophets, the writings… they were supposed to be the teachers of the Gentiles… they were supposed to be the light to a dark world. Instead, they are bringing shadow not light. They are embarrassing God’s name among the nations. Paul says in a moment of piercing critique – the “sign” of being in the covenant community (circumcision) only has value if you actually do what you say you intend to do (being circumcised was a way of saying, “I am committing to obey Torah”). If you take the sign but don’t do what it stands for you only prove yourself to be a liar and are just like a pagan Gentile (thus “category 2” – marked out for wrath / judgment!). Because, as a community, the Jews had not done the “requirements” of Torah (historically speaking), they were considered under wrath and thus in the same position as the Gentiles (“category 2”). Romans 3:9 is most clear in summing up this idea: “all, both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin.” Furthermore, the string of scriptures Paul lists in 3:10-18 are a further argument from the “Torah” (Jewish scriptures) itself that no Jew has a leg to stand on in the judgment. Everybody better just shut up when it comes to defending themselves on judgment day – especially the “Jew.” “Covenant community” marks don’t have any value – they only establish that you are part of a community under wrath (since the community hasn’t been faithful). That means bad news…
2) Paul’s second and perhaps more startling point (which is not fully clarified yet in Romans 1:28-3:20) was that God definitely would forgive, vindicate and glorify a covenant community… but it wouldn’t be the people in “category 1” (or “category 2”). It would be this mysterious “category 3” community – the people who, whether circumcised or not, actually do the “requirements” of Torah (the very thing that people who were physically circumcised said they would do but didn’t). This group Paul refers to as “the true Jews” (see Romans 2:25-29). These people are the true children of Abraham. Being a “true Jew” (part of the true covenant community – heir to the “new covenant” promise) according to Paul is about “inward” realities not externalities like cutting off some extra skin on the male genital. But who are these people?????
Now we can see clearly Paul’s issue: He wants to determine the answer to the question, “How do we know the distinguishing mark(s) of the people group / community who will be forgiven and vindicated at God’s judgment?” In other words, “who is the true heir of the covenantal promise of ‘covenant renewal’ talked about in Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36, etc?” Is it the person / community who merely “rests in” the confidence that comes from the mere possession of Torah (the covenant paperwork)? Is it the person / community who has their foreskin snipped? Is it the ethnically / culturally Jewish person? Or is the covenant community distinguished in some other way? Paul’s answer will be given over the course of the following chapter and a half… although part of his answer which is already clear is that it will be a people group who carry out the “requirements” of Torah – God’s intentions for humanity. (Romans 2:13-14, 26-29)
Paul wants to say all of this while doing something really important… he does not want to discard the incredibly important history God has with the ethnically / culturally Jewish people. In Romans 3:1-8 Paul begins to clarify the value of being Jewish… a flow of thought that he drops after verse 8 until he picks it up again in Romans 9. He also wants to make sure and say that God has not abandoned the covenant bargain even though Israel has completely screwed up her end of the bargain.
I hope this makes sense to you. For me, the light-bulb comes on when I see what it is that Paul is trying to say in 1:18-3:20:
1) God will judge all people
2) God will judge based on a person’s life work (Judgment by deeds)
3) Godless Gentiles clearly deserve judgment
4) Being ethnically Jewish is not a guarantee of being in this particular community. In fact it is actually a liability since the Jewish community appears to be under covenant “curse” / wrath
5) Thus all of humanity is under the power of sin and deserving of God’s wrath. Jews and Gentiles are both in deep trouble
6) There is a third category being hinted at by Paul… this is the hope. Who are these people? Whoever they are, God will forgive and vindicate them (it will be a community that is faithful in obedience – carrying out the “requirements of Torah”- Remember Romans 1:5 “The obedience of faith”!!!)
This brings us to Romans 3:21 where Paul spills the beans and gives us the answer!