We come now to the first lengthy section of Paul’s development of his main point. He is beginning to lay out the nature of the gospel for Jew and Gentile. This section will run from 1:18 to the end of chapter 3. We will take a number of chapters in dealing with the whole section. It is a passage that is developed especially along the lines of dealing with the matter of the Jew and Gentile, and that will be easily seen as we look at it. The basic point is to deal with the question of man’s sin, both Jew and Gentile, and God’s wrath against sin.
From this point on to the end of chapter 3, Paul’s focus is to show how sin has had a devastating effect upon mankind and what God has done to begin to address the terrible plight that man now finds himself in. The key elements of this first stage of the argument are the wrath of God, the guilt and depravity of all men, and the propitiation in Christ that God has provided as a way of making possible the beginning of the process of redemption.
In dealing with these issues, Paul focuses much upon the relationship of these truths to both Jews and Gentiles alike. That is generally recognized, but I think we might be better off to see the connection between Paul’s dealing with the sin of the Jew and that of the Gentile in a slightly different way than is often described, though. It is often thought that the rest of chapter 1 focuses exclusively on the Gentile with chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 as looking at the Jew.
While there is little doubt that the Jew is much the focus of chapters 2 and 3, it is probably not best to think that they were to be excluded from view in chapter 1. Rather, chapter 1 itself is to be understood as universally dealing with all men. And again, though the Jew is certainly more in focus in chapters 2-3, we will also see that there is room enough for some focus upon Gentiles in those chapters as well, especially the opening of chapter 2. We will explore this view a little more in our coming discussion.
The concluding point of this discussion of universal sin is the provision of forgiveness of that sin through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I think that most of this passage has been laid out fairly well in most commentaries and Bible studies, and for that reason I expect that many readers will already have a fairly good grasp of the section as a whole. Along the way of looking at the section, though, we will hopefully be able to help a little bit with understanding more fully some of the passages involved and some of the fullness of what Paul is saying in these chapters and why he is saying it.
Read this opening section and you will see a world in ruin. All is in chaos. Mankind has rejected God’s ways, God has in turn rejected them, and all is now one terrible mess. This is the opening scene that Paul lays before us as he begins to explain the nature of the true gospel message. In setting forth a gospel that focuses on the redemption of the whole world, Paul starts with a picture of the ruin of the whole world.
The step that Paul makes as we enter into a new section is easily connected with what has just been said. Paul has just told us that the gospel contains a revelation:
The righteousness of God is revealed in it. (1:17)
Now Paul is ready to tell us something more about that revelation, and he begins with the revelation of something that has a bit of a different name than the aforementioned “righteousness”:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
How did we come from a revelation of righteousness to a revelation of the wrath of God? It is important to understand the fact that the first step in Paul’s goal of demonstrating the revealed righteousness of God through the gospel is demonstrating the revealed wrath of God against sin. This is the focus of what Paul is going first to undertake to show. The basic statement of this wrath against man’s sin is found in the rest of chapter 1, verses 18-32. This section will form the focus of this chapter of our study.
This starting point for the explanation of the gospel is an essential matter. The wrath of God is an absolute must-be-understood for people as they are taught about the truth of God’s word. Paul begins here because without this point, not much else will make sense.
There is a fundamentality to the concepts of sin and guilt that society does not like. Right at the heart of any system of true thought must be found the reality of righteousness, sin, and guilt. These are ceasing to be primary categories of thought for us today. The godless world certainly does not like these concepts too well, but that is to be expected in many ways. Those who refuse God are not likely to accept such condemning realities; they are more likely to deny that white is white and black is black.
However, there is a great concern to me that the church itself does not remember these basic realities well enough. We certainly know that there is more to be said about truth than only sin, guilt, and wrath. The church has more of the message of God than only the first part. We know about grace, forgiveness, and other wonderful truths.
But I have to confess that I am greatly disheartened when I find that these other truths are so abused and mis-emphasized today that the concept of God’s wrath against sin seems almost to disappear. I want us to think about whether there is any real basis for this. We are almost jumping ahead now, for this topic will be dealt with in greater detail in later chapters of Romans, but it is such a problem in our theology and way of thinking that I have to stop for a moment now and emphasize it. God hates sin. And I will ask you whether you think that is true even when that sin is found in the people who go to church and hear the Bible read and taught, or only when it is found in those who explicitly reject God’s word?
Well, though we will save more of that for later chapters, we see that this emphasis is not far at all from the mark of what Paul drives at here and now. There is a great importance in what Paul says here concerning the universality of these facts. First of all, Paul tells us that the wrath of God comes not against one particular group of sinners, but against all unrighteousness (1:18). This is an important word, indeed, the word all. There will be more than one point at which this word assumes a central place of importance in Paul’s statements in Romans. Here it is not yet elaborated upon, but why need it be, in one sense? The word is simple enough in itself. God hates sin, and it doesn’t really matter whose sin it is.
We find that Paul does give a description of the party to whom this sin belongs that incurs God’s wrath. It is the sin of “men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Is there a more general term than “men” to name the sinners? Again, though it is looking ahead, it is worth noting that nowhere in this section is the name of “Gentile” given to the sinner. There is nothing here to distinguish the “Gentile sinner” from the “righteous Jew,” or any such idea. This deals with mankind as a whole. We will return to that point later.
What do these men do to incite God’s anger against them? Well, many particulars are given in lengthy list form later in this section. We could look at each member of that list individually, but the first thing to do is to see the fundamental problem that gives rise to all of the individual sins, that fundamental problem which Paul here describes and names as “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” Men refuse the truth, refuse to accept it and submit themselves to it. They instead rebel against it. This is the beginning of their sin.
What truth are we talking about here? Paul tells us that as well in verse 19:
For that which is known of God is manifest among them, for God has manifested it to them. (1:19)
So, then, the truth is named as the knowledge of God. Men know truth about God, but they suppress it and do not live according to it. Paul gives also a description of what it means to suppress this knowledge of God:
Knowing God, they did not glorify Him as God or give thanks. (1:21)
This is the fundamental suppression of truth: Refusing to honor and worship God; refusing to give thanks to Him for all the blessings of life that we have, even for life itself. The honoring of God in this way and the giving of thanks to Him for all blessings of life are the first principles of all religion and all righteousness. We recognize that God is the Creator and Giver of all good things. The only right response to this truth is worship and thanksgiving.
We really are dealing with a universal and basic truth now, aren’t we? How many men in this world are without the blessing of life? Any man you ever meet will be a man who has been given life as a gift from another source. He had no say in the matter; he did nothing to deserve such a gift. And yet, he has it. What is he going to do with this fact? He has been given the greatest natural blessing of all at no cost to himself and without merit of it. And what is his response? If a man does not look in humble gratitude to the source of this blessing of life, he is already on the path of great wickedness of heart. How can a man receive such a gift and not give thanks?
And what more might we say of the numerous other blessings that each and every man enjoys in life without his earning them? Who makes the sun to shine? The rains to fall? The crops to grow? The heart to beat and the lungs to breathe? Who awakes us from our slumber each morning with another day of life? Every single blessing that we have in life comes in the end from another source than ourselves. And yet, rather than humbly seeking the source to whom all thanks is due, what do men do? They grow proud and puffed up in their minds. They boldly ignore the Giver of all these gifts and assume credit to themselves. Or they steal the honor that belongs to God by giving it to some created being or object, man or beast or stone, that is no more worthy of that praise than himself. This is the first and most basic step of man’s rejection of God. It is the heart of sin and that which gives rise to numerous other manifestations of sin.
So few men actually and truly honor God in this way, we find. It would seem that this should be the first and most natural instinct of man, but it is quite the contrary in reality. The hearts of men are led astray into sin, and they rebel against the One who has given them life and all good things.
Now, we skipped over one important point in verse 20. How is this knowledge of God attained? We have already read that God Himself is He who manifests this truth to men, but Paul does say more than that about how this is done, and it will be important to see this as Paul’s argument develops:
For the invisible things of Him are seen clearly from the creation of the world, being perceived in the things that are made. (1:20)
Thus, the knowledge of God comes as something that God manifests to men, and God does so through the created world. This is very important in establishing the universality of all that Paul is going to say about the gospel. Paul points to a common point that must necessarily include all men: The creation of the world. If knowledge of God comes from the creation of the world, then who is without this knowledge of God? There is no man without it. All men have the creation, which God Himself uses to manifest Himself to them and give them knowledge of Him, though they cannot see Him in His invisible nature.
Paul will make this same important step elsewhere in Romans, reaching back to the very beginning in order to locate these truths at the very inception of man’s history. The point of doing this is to make the gospel truths clear in their universality. Though he is not yet going to draw out the implication here, this is very important in its relationship to the question of Jew and Gentile and their relation to the gospel message. We are here looking at a truth in which there is not such a distinction as that between Jew and Gentile. This reaches back to the creation of the world and thus to all mankind. The truths that we see here are universal truths. All men must be willing to recognize that the knowledge of God has been given to them and also that the rejection of that knowledge is a part of their history as a man. We will see more of this, and that more plainly developed in terms of Jew and Gentile, later in the book. Just see mainly for now that Paul points to the universal truth of creation as the starting point of the gospel.
So then, all men have knowledge of God. This much is made plain. God has manifested the truth about Himself to all mankind. Sadly, though, men have rejected that knowledge. What is the result? The result is the darkening of the heart and mind of man as God gives them over to the wicked desires of their hearts:
Their foolish heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise, they were made fools. (1:21-22)
Therefore, God gave them over in the desires of their hearts. (1:24)
Therefore, God gave them over unto passions of dishonor. (1:26)
God gave them over unto an unproven mind. (1:28)
The great and terrible picture that results from man’s sin is his horrid condition of sinfulness and corruption that controls him. Mankind has been given over by God, as we read three times in these few verses. Our hearts have been darkened. We are slaves to wicked desires.
This theme is often times not given enough attention in the study of this portion of the epistle. Too often, only legal guilt is emphasized as the message here. That is an important part of the picture, no doubt, but Paul’s emphasis is very strong upon the fact that our sinfulness as men has resulted in more than just an abstract category of “guilty.” It is vital to see that something must also be done about our completely ruined, corrupt, and depraved nature. This is so important to be noted because of how it relates to the coming chapters of the book. Paul will develop his outline of the gospel salvation in terms of the two concepts of legal guilt and corrupted nature. God will provide a salvation that address both parts of our need.
So runs the first stage of Paul’s development of the gospel. This section is plain and universal. There is no talk of Jew or Gentile yet. This is truth that applies to all men. The argument has been made. The truth has been laid plain of man’s guilt, God’s wrath, and the resultant terrible and corrupt condition of mankind. What is the next step to take? Logically, Paul should be ready to talk about how God is to provide a salvation through Jesus Christ to remedy all of this terrible situation of sin. This is the good news of the gospel.
However, what we find is that Paul does not yet begin to do so until the end of chapter 3. Why is this? If Paul were only wishing to lay out step by step the basic points of the system of gospel salvation for an individual, then the book of Romans would be much shorter. We would be ready now to move right into God’s method of propitiation in the blood of Jesus Christ as we find at the end of chapter 3. Then we would be able to go into the new life found in the beginning of chapter 5, which would suffice for that topic rather than the following nearly three chapter elaboration found in chapter 6 through the first half of chapter 8. Then we would have the great conclusion of God’s purpose to conform each individual to perfect redemption in conformity to the image of Christ as found in the end of chapter 8. And this would be the whole message of the basic gospel system.
But this is not what we find. Paul will write much more than this in between each of the major steps of the gospel truth. Why? Because his focus is not only on the basics of the gospel for individual salvation, but how those basic truths relate to the whole world of men, and that will mean that significant attention must be given to how the gospel relates to both Jew and Gentile. His scope and concern is much larger than any one man. In many ways, the bulk of the actual content of the book of Romans is written only because of Paul’s concern with the matter of Jew and Gentile.
Just why does a universal gospel call for such special attention to be given to the matter of Jew and Gentile relations? This is a question that perhaps we don’t understand so well in our day. The truth is, though, that if we read the Bible very much, we should understand something more of why it is so important. The emphasis within the book of Romans upon the matter of Jew and Gentile parallels to a large extent the emphasis on the issue within the Bible as a whole.
Have you ever considered the pattern of the Bible’s history in regards to this question? The Bible begins with the broadest and most universal scope possible: The creation of the world. The whole world fell into sin and ruin, though, and God’s response was to destroy the whole world and start over with the family of Noah. His scope remained worldwide at that point.
But after the flood, sin still made its presence known. The flood had not removed it. Rather than destroy the whole world again, though, God determined to take a different approach. He decided to choose one family within the midst of a wicked world and seek to work salvation through them. He was not going to work with the world as a whole, but to focus upon one family within that world.
And so God called Abraham in chapter 12 of Genesis. After only 11 chapters of worldwide history, the rest of the Old Testament is concerned primarily with the family of Abraham, the Jews. From this point on, mankind is divided between these two camps, the Jews and the Gentiles. God’s plan centers heavily upon the covenant that He made with Abraham and his seed.
But this is not to say that God’s focus upon the world had changed. Imbedded within the promises to Abraham were deep concerns with blessings that would come to the whole world. It is this relationship between the focus upon one man’s seed and the rest of the world that provides the Biblical context for the fulfillment of salvation to all the world. It is in Jesus Christ that the promises and blessings are fulfilled. This basic setting must necessarily form a large part of the explanation of the gospel, and so it does for Paul in the book of Romans. If we wish to understand Romans, we will have to appreciate just how important of a concept this is.
And we are now going to see how this setting and history affects the flow of thought at this first stage of Paul’s message. As we continue to chapter 2, we find that Paul will now elaborate on this first basic point of man’s guilt and depravity as true for all men. Are these truths really indeed universal? Are there not men, maybe even whole classes of men, to whom this wickedness and rebellion is not to be attributed? At the heart of Paul’s thought in considering this question is the relation of the Jewish people to these truths, as we will see.