A large mistake is made in understanding Romans if one assumes that Paul is concerned with proving the fact that no one can ever live without sin—or that all attempts at obeying God’s commands are at least tainted with human sinfulness. The first problem with such an assumption is that it makes no sense of the people whom Paul was arguing against. Anyone with basic Biblical literacy knew that all human beings were sinful. Jesus himself assumed his Israelite hearers all understood this as a basic fact of the human condition (Matthew 7:11).
The second and more important problem with understanding that Paul was trying to prove universal human sinfulness is that he simply doesn’t do so. Paul argues that the whole world, including and even especially Israel, has collectively descended into degradation and apostasy. The sin he writes about in the first three chapters are not the secret sins that a moralist might pretend don’t count enough to provoke the wrath of God. Nor does he spend any time at all telling a moralist that his obedience can never measure up to God’s perfect standard. Rather, he writes of public and outrageous sins, as well as false beliefs that condone such sins. In the case of Israel, according to Paul, these sins are so visible and scandalous that they cause God’s name to be blasphemed among the nations.
Paul begins his condemnation of the human race by saying that God reveals his wrath (Romans 1:18 ESV). But how it is revealed? The description of how God responds to unbelief and idolatry by giving people over to more and worse of the same (1:24ff) cannot possibly be considered a revelation of God’s wrath. While it is just of God to leave people in their wickedness and give them over to more, such actions do not reveal His wrath. On the contrary, the time of this historic spiraling descent which Paul describes in such graphic detail is always a mixture of mercy with chastisement (Romans 2:4). In fact, that time period, rather than showing God’s wrath, leads to questions about God’s righteousness which he must answer “at the right time” (Romans 3:35b; 5:6).
God’s wrath is not being “revealed” in that process in history, but rather wrath is being “stored up” (Romans 2:5). The only medium of revelation mentioned in the context is the Gospel itself. The simplest way to interpret the passage is that the Gospel, in revealing God’s righteousness, also reveals God’s wrath. One could perhaps show this with the implication in brackets:
For in it [i.e. in the Gospel; see v. 16] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For [in it—i.e. in the Gospel] the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
But if the wrath is revealed in the Gospel, to what exactly is Paul referring? As I’ve already mentioned above, He cannot be referring to God giving over people to more sin in response to their sin. Paul makes it clear that the process of moral degradation is at time when God is constantly showing kindness and forbearance (Romans 2:1-4; Romans 3:25).
A second possibility is that the Gospel reveals God’s wrath by revealing a future judgment (Romans 2:5, 15, 16). But this also is problematic because Paul says that God’s wrath “will be revealed” in the future (2:5). The emphasis in 1:16-18 is that God’s righteousness is now revealed. Thus, we would expect that the Gospel reveals God’s wrath at about the same time frame.
I would suggest that the Gospel reveals God’s wrath from heaven at the point where the action reported in Paul’s Gospel both reveals God’s righteousness and takes away any basis for the charge that God has not properly punished sin. The most obvious explanation for Romans 1:16-17 would then be Romans 3:21ff. Consider: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood through faithfulness. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:23-25). Even though the word “wrath” is missing, it is clear that putting Christ forward as a propitiation works to “show God’s righteousness” and vindicate a past history of forbearance—it explains the missing wrath.
Thus, the most natural interpretation of how God’s wrath is revealed in the Gospel is because the Gospel is the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As such, it reveals the definitive display of God’s wrath on sin.
Reader might note I disposed of the ESV’s paraphrase, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” My case does not rest on choosing between the objective and subjective genitive—between “faith in Christ” and “the faithfulness of Christ.” Regardless of one’s interpretation, my point is that “God’s righteousness” is revealed in the concrete act of God putting Jesus forward as a propitiation. Thus the parallelism between Romans 3:21 and 23:
dikaiosune de theou dia pisteos Iesou Christou
ilasterion dia pisteos.
Whether Paul is referring to the believer’s faith or Christ’s or God’s faithfulness, the point stands that God’s righteousness is displayed in the propitiation found in Christ’s blood, which also reveals God’s wrath on sin. Because God put Jesus forward, he proved his own righteousness.
If this is correct, it shows that Romans 1:18ff serves to show how God’s wrath is piling up to reach a final judgment. And it involves “The Jew first and also the Greek” from the very beginning. Romans 1.18ff does not begin with a condemnation aimed exclusively at Gentiles, to then add Jews later in chapter 2. Rather, it begins with a condemnation of all human culture, including Israel. Paul laces 1:18ff with language that is recognizably derived from the prophets addressing Israel. We can read Romans 1:18ff as a summary and commentary on various Old Testament passages. (In what follows, Romans 1 is in normal type, the Old Testament passages interspersed in italics.)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been done [not “made”].
For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time.” (Deuteronomy 4:32-40)
O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old (Psalm 44:1)
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you. All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.” Selah Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah (Psalm 66:3-7).
So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged (Isaiah 1:2-4).
but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them (1 King 17:15).
Thus says YHWH: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? (Jeremiah 2:5)
Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. . . . Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them (Jeremiah 10:1, 14).
and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass (Psalm 106:20).
Has a nation changed its gods even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit (Jeremiah :11).
beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth (Deuteronomy 4:16-18).
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,
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement, when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter” (Isaiah 28:15).
No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked read on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:19-20).
Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them (Jeremiah 10:14).
Thus says YHWH: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray, those after which their fathers walked (Amos 2:4).
who is blessed forever! Amen.
Jewish apostasy is recognizable in Paul’s description so that he can then write, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2.1). Paul is here focusing on Israel and he can tell his readers that Israel is without excuse because he has been talking about them all along, as well as the nations.
To repeat: there is nothing in the passage that seems to indicate it is aimed at a group of “Pelagians” who think human nature is basically good. Romans 2:21 doesn’t accuse a moralistic Jew of somehow trying not to ever steal but then failing and giving into the temptation. Rather, Paul simply says it is a public fact that Jews are robbers. Likewise they commit adultery (2:22). These sins are publicly known and cause the Gentiles to blaspheme God’s name.