Exegesis of Romans 1:18-21
Fred G. Zaspel, 1993
Following some introductory remarks leading to a statement of his theme, namely the saving power of the gospel of God's righteousness received by faith (1:16-17), the apostle Paul begins in this section to develop his argument. "The righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel is a gift of God received on the sole basis of faith (dikaiosune theou . . . ek pisteos v.17) in Jesus Christ. This justifying righteousness is the heart of Paul's gospel and is the only message of salvation for both Jew and Greek (v.16).
But the truth and necessity of this message must be established. Accordingly, in 1:18-3:20 Paul argues for man's need of justification. This need for a gift of righteousness is made evident by a display of human depravity; hence, the strong accusatory and condemnatory language of this section of the epistle.
The universal rebellion and consequent guilt of humanity form the theme which Paul develops in this passage (1:18-21).
The apostle argues that God's wrath against sinners is already being revealed (apokaluptetai, v.18). He then justifies this assertion (dioti . . . dioti) by exposing man's continual rebellion against known truth (v.19-21a). Finally, he points out that this rebellion has driven humanity into a vicious downward spiral into further depravity (21b). Paul moves from the fact of God's wrath to its cause (sin) and then on to its display in the (temporal) effects of that sin.
Point of Reference
It is commonly accepted that Paul is here establishing the guilt of the Gentile world and that his condemnation of the Jew is taken up in chapters 2 and (particularly) 3. There is little doubt that this assessment is generally accurate, but it is significant that while Paul does not mention the Jew here explicitly, neither does he so mention the Gentile; rather, he speaks of anthropon. Moreover, virtually all that is said in these verses is true of both classes of men, albeit especially so of Gentiles.(1) Viewed in this way the apostle's indictment falls upon all humanity as such, which is evidently his ultimate intention (cf. 3:10, 23). Verse 18, then, stands as a summary statement of the entire section, and the repeated use of the present tense in verses 18b-20 (katechonton . . . nooumena kathoratai reflect the continued and so universal nature of these human activities and experiences.
The repeated apokaluptetai, standing emphatically first in this sentence, draws attention to orge theou which is revealed concurrently with (or perhaps antecedent to) the revelation of the dikaiosune theou in the gospel (v.17). Gar here maintains its usual explanatory force, relating back to the preceding assertion that God's righteousness must come as a gift received ek pisteos. Such a free justification is necessary "because" all men are lost and fit objects of God's wrath. Man's nature and behavior are such that he could by no other way attain a right standing with God.
Orge theou (subjective genitive) here should be understood in its usual sense and not as a merely impersonal force bringing about the inevitable effects of sin.(2) In reference to God wrath is neither dispassionate nor pridefully cruel (as so often in human experience). "Wrath is the holy revulsion of God's being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness."(3) God is not passive but active in response to sin, nor is it improper to speak of Him as wrathful. This attitude and exercise of righteous indignation against evil is no vice but a virtue which God perfectly displays against (epi, here in a violent sense) sin.
Sin is deserving of penal inflictions. Ap' ouranou corresponds antithetically to en auto (v. 17, as orge theou does also to dikaiosune theou) and makes reference by metonymy to God Himself.(4) It is His wrath that is already "being revealed" (apokaluptetai, continuous present)....
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