Paul’s recitation of mankind’s abuses would flow from out of him quite naturally, as for all practical purposes all that is to be found in verses eighteen through thirty-two of Romans one, was very likely nothing more than standard rhetoric directed at Gentiles by members of Israel, as they sought to maintain the purity, integrity, and identity of their people and their special, preferred status in the eyes of the Creator God. The words that can be found there could form something of a propaganda against Gentiles, playing into the “us versus them” mentality that marked much of second temple Judaism (and unfortunately much of Christianity).
This is not difficult for us to understand. We in the church are quite accustomed to adopting such language and using it in such ways. We sit in our pews and applaud (or perhaps just nod our heads in tacit, comfortable agreement) as preachers and teachers lift accusatory fingers and point them at the pagans and heathen of “the world,” whom our just God will rightly judge. This is done while perhaps tossing in pithy and condescending statements (in the face of not-well-masked vitriol) such as “but Jesus loves them,” or “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Even worse, we often find the “us versus them” mentality moving from the church versus the world (there is some necessary opposition, though it is often mis-directed) to church versus church, as one church, inevitably holding itself up as the repository of the true Gospel message, offers blanket condemnations to other churches that, by extension, fail to preach the “true Gospel.” It must be said that this dualistic mentality is quite difficult to escape or to avoid altogether, requiring Christians to be on constant guard against falling into its unhelpful and damaging-to-the-Gospel clutches.
How can we, after a perusal of the second half of chapter one, draw a conclusion in which we see Paul employing the propagandizing rhetoric that Israel has reserved for Gentiles? Is this a legitimate observation? We are aided in our reaching of that conclusion by that with which Paul opens the second chapter, which is “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things” (2:1). Following some intervening material in which Paul highlights God’s judgment, kindness, forbearance, and patience, in which he also tosses in “He will reward each one according to His works” (2:6) while also briefly railing against “selfish ambition” (2:8), we proceed to stumble upon a statement that we have already reviewed in our build-up to looking at chapter three, which is “There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. For there is no partiality with God” (2:9-11). The language of covenant extension and inclusiveness is everywhere.
By this we are again reminded that we simply cannot pick and choose statements from Paul, pluck them from their context, and hear them however we desire to hear them. There is a narrative flow, and one statement builds on the next, with Paul making it more than abundantly clear that covenant, covenant markers, and covenant participation is the primary field of concern for this letter. We can comfortably blanket that field under the cover of “justification.” Paul’s concern is that God’s righteousness, which is well-defined by Scripture as His faithfulness to His covenant and to His covenant people (covenant faithfulness), will be demonstrated and God will be vindicated. This must be linked to the activity of Jesus, to the cross, and to His Resurrection, as Jesus sums up the story of Israel.
To expand on that point, Paul sees Israel’s story climaxing in Jesus, with Jesus, as King and therefore as representative of God’s covenant people, fulfilling all that God expected of Israel. More than that, Jesus perfectly fulfills all that is expected of humanity, bearing the divine image as God intended. As Israel’s story and responsibility cannot be extricated from the covenant, and as Israel only exists as a people because of God’s covenant with Abraham, we simply cannot think of Jesus, His ministry, or His saving work apart from that covenant. The Gospel that Jesus is Lord, and therefore the justification that is linked to that message of the Gospel, cannot be understood or propagated apart from a proper understanding of the covenant and of what God is doing in relation to His covenant. When we add in that Judaism did not posit “earning salvation” by works (works of the law, adoption and practice of covenant markers, were the response of those already included in the covenant---justified) which disposes of the long-cherished and often confusing contrast between “works” and “grace” as means to salvation (justification---being included in the covenant people), we put ourselves in a much better position to understand the letter to Romans, the Gospel, the kingdom of God, and our role in and for that kingdom and the world in which it is to be found (God’s will being done on earth as heaven), which is accomplished according to and through the deed and word proclamation and manifestation of the Gospel.
At the risk of over-stating the significance of covenant (and repeating this word ad nauseum), God’s righteousness will be exercised and will be recognized in graciously extending that covenant and its promises to Gentiles, and He is doing this through that which demonstrates loyalty to Him. Previously, this had been the bearing of the covenant markers (which had morphed over time) that identified Israel as Israel. Now, this loyalty to Him is demonstrated through the confession of Jesus as Lord and a subsequent reordering of one’s life around that claim. It bears repeating that this has nothing to do with God granting people a qualitative righteousness, and everything to do with the dramatic proclamation, by the extension of the covenant and its promises to all peoples, on new terms, that God, in Christ, has taken up His place on the throne of the cosmos and is becoming King.