Romans 1:18-3:26

Universal sin, Universal Condemnation, Universal Need


This passage consists of an extended exposition of the reality of human sin and the consequent justness of God’s wrath against all people everywhere. It is clear from Paul’s emphasis throughout, that unless we feel the rightness of God’s verdict of condemnation against all people, based upon a common standard of righteousness, we have not understood the biblical concept of sin and cannot, therefore have the biblical concept of atonement, hustification, grace and faith.


I.  The Gospel presupposes Wrath – 1:18 -  This verse begins with “For.” That means Paul is now going to explain why, in the gospel, righteousness is revealed by faith. The good news, in other words, is just this, that God, who can never be separated from his righteousness, has nevertheless made a way of displaying that righteousness apart from  our condemnation.


A. If, however, we look at universal reality, we must concluded that already wrath is operative, not fully waiting for the eventual full display in eternity, but popping over the edge of the cauldron like vigorously boiling water. So, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.”

B.  God’s wrathful interaction with this present age comes because all present activity of men is in some sense a “suppression of truth,” motivated by unrighteousness.


II. No one anywhere is exempt from this, for all people everywhere resist what is plain – 1:19-32 – This passage begins with the assumption that revelation of God’s moral nature and requirements are manifest with such clarity that all human crime, sexual perversion, meanness, and selfishness are practiced in the face of a clear knowledge that they should do otherwise.


A. The tendency to idolatry proceeds in opposition to the revelation of the pure, infinite, and excellent spirituality of God’s nature. 19-23

B. Idolatry led to other inversions of reality and prompted a devotion to sensual emphasis on the human body, and thus a celebration of immorality. 24-25

C. Such devotion to the human body, per se, broke down barriers beyond morality destroying even what is obviously the natural relation between the bodies of the sexes leading to homosexuality. 26-27

D. This abandonment to sexual perversion begins to magnify the corruption of all interpersonal virtue. 28-31

E.. This is done in spite of an internal knowledge that such conduct is worthy of death. But the boldness of this rebellion is seen not only in personal conduct but in an encouragement of others in it. 32


III. Paul demonstrates that God the moral standard according to which God judges is known and begins a transition to a discussion of the judgment and the Law: 2:1-11

A. Paul points out that everyone makes moral judgments on other people. Everyone, therefore, has the concept of amoral code implanted in their conscience. When they judge others, they judge themselves, for doubtless, they violate their own moral code. 1-3

B. If we received at any moment the judgment that the moral status of our lives deserved, we would immediately fall under condemnation. Quick judgments happen to many people every day. God’s patience with us, every day without ultimate judgment is a gift of present mercy. We do not improve in the mean time, however, and are storing up wrath against the day of judgment. At the time God’s wrath is revealed according to his righteous judgment, all will perish that it is unrighteous.

C. Verses 6-11 are speaking of judgment purely in terms of works without the redemptive work of Christ in view. He also begins his transition from a discussion of the Gentile that has been left to nature and conscience as a means of establishing the standard of righteousness by which he will be judged to the Jew who has the revelation of law for a moral code by which he will be judged.

1. Should a person continue all his life with an unbroken pursuit of living in the presence of the glory of God, enjoying the clear and perfect moral virtue of God, without a pure pursuit of the blessings and the holy environment of the immortal state that transcends all that is in this life, he will receive eternal life. 6, 7

2. But, the person that seeks self-glory, and self-pleasure, and represses the truth and loves unrighteousness, he will receive “wrath and fury.”

3. Paul then makes these same points by reversing the order; the punishment for the evil-doer is described as “tribulation and distress” and it will include both Jew and Greek. He mentions that it is the Jew that is first in judgment (“the Jew first”) and also the Greek. This is the same order we find in verse 1:16 concerning the power of the Gospel. Also everyone that does “good” will receive the reward: glory and honor and peace. 2:10 Again to the Jew first, and also the Greek.

·        The idea that there is a reward in the perfect keeping of the Law and punishment for breaking it is one of the fundamental premises of Scripture. See Leviticus 18:5 and then Galatians 3:12 and Romans 10:5 for Paul’s application of this. Also Deuteronomy 27:26 and Galatians 3:10 for the application of punishment for disobedience. Paul is not arguing that it is possible subsequent to the fall for a person to achieve salvation through an unbroken course of absolute obedience, but that the principle “obedience equals life” is operative for all the sons of Adam, not only the Jews. One might obey the Law without the written code, for the written code is a delineation of the law written on the heart at creation as one aspect of the “image of God described by Paul in Ephesians 4:24 as “true righteousness and holiness.”

·        The “firstness” of the Jew both in opportunity as well as responsibility Paul explains in 3:1,2; 9:1-5; 10:1-4.

IV. Romans 2:12-24 – Here Paul shows that whether a person sins against the Law as a revealed external code written for all generations to see or against the law written in the heart, their judgment is still just for it is against divine holiness. Obedience to either also constitutes righteousness and it is to the actual keeper of the law that the declaration of “justified” is given (2:13)


1. 2:12-13 - Impartiality both in condemnation and justification arises from the universality of a standard of righteousness. Those that sin, even without any special revelation of divine law, will perish. Those that sin with a special revelation of law will be judged and condemned under the authority of that special revelation. By the same token, any person that is a doer of the law, by intrinsic intuition of that that is on the heart, or by a whole-personed obedience to the written code will be pronounced righteous. In the absence of full law-keeping, there can be no justification. This verse, 13, has direct relevance to Paul’s argument for imputation in chapters 4 and 5. The right standing of believers before God comes not only on the basis of forgiveness, but also on the basis of a complete righteousness being imputed to us: “doers of the law will be justified.”

2.  2:14-16 – Paul argues that the law is absolute, not merely an arbitrary manifestation of isolated esoteric rules. It is arbitrary only in the sense that God wills a thing to be so as a necessary outflow of his intrinsic holiness and sovereign prerogatives. Even apart from special revelation, however, Paul makes it clear that the Gentiles can do “by nature” that which is right. It is written on their heart as a continued witness of the image of God and their conscience will condemn them for their wrong doing in the final judgment when all the rationalizing subterfuges are taken away. For the sake of argument, Paul also mentions that right-doing could also result from the law on the heart so that a Gentile’s conscience might “excuse,” that is, approve, them on the day of judgment. Conscience serves not merely as a whip when one does wrong, but as an instructor and encourager when we are faced day by day with options for good or bad, right or wrong, inferior or excellent. The fall has perverted every aspect of human nature that constitutes one’s judgment so that we run roughshod over the conscience and render it ineffectual for instruction in righteousness. As a natural faculty, however, it serves as a guide to the law.

3.  2:17-24 – Here Paul attacks a misperception held by the representative Jew to whom he is speaking. It could be a reflection of his own thinking prior to conversion [cf. Romans 10:1-4; Philippians 3:4-6;]. The problem is that the Jew has allowed his privileged position to obscure the universal demand for real holiness of heart and practical righteousness. He has come to interpret his having the Law as sufficient in itself to establish him as one that has God’s favor. The revelation of the Law, so he thinks, has not only set him apart in privilege, but has in itself given him right standing with God. [Paul also argues against this misperception in Galatians 3:15-18] Their close attention to the Law for centuries had made them filled with many details of instruction concerning the Law and its implications for every aspect of daily life. Paul cuts through all of this when he asserts, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.” (2:23)


V. The issue of circumcision as an external mark of differentiation between Jew and Gentile is shown to be a mark that the external revelation has always required an internal love and submission 2:24-29. This was an added advantage to the Jew in that it gave a constant reminder of his covenant duty to obey the law. He had the law, and he had a mark in his flesh, highly symbolic in nature, to prompt him to regard the law rightly.

A. The most pronounced external mark of Jewishness was the circumcision of all male children on the eighth day. This was a mark in their flesh that they were set apart by God and had covenant obligations. The fact, however, that he is a law-transgressor renders the advantage null as far as righteousness is concerned. (2:25)

B. On the other hand, since the purpose of circumcision is to press toward a grasp of the law as a heart-felt love for and obedience to God [dikaiomata, “righteous requirements” of the law], if an uncircumcised person were to do this, his uncircumcision would be no disadvantage at all, but in his uncircumcised state he would be accounted as one that has accomplished all that is contained in the purpose of circumcision. [2:26] Accounted, or imputed, is a math term. One thing equals another. True obedience equals real righteousness and it is only just, and purely logical, to account it so. It is in the same way the Faith is accounted as righteousness [4:22, 23, 24]. It is accounted so, because it really is so, not in us, but in the one that is our substitute in this reckoning.

C. The uncircumcised lawkeeper judges the circumcised, law-possessing, law breaker. His understanding of righteousness and his perfect execution of it  allows him to see the inconsistency of one that knows the truth but does not keep it. Paul sees an irony in the reversal of roles; instead of the self-righteous Jew judging the Gentile without any moral ground to do so, the uncircumcised law-keeping Gentile judges the Jew with moral ground to do so.

D. In verses 28, 29 Paul still is dealing with the concept of righteousness according to the law and the relation of the codified and revealed law to the law written on the heart. Verse 29 “in spirit,” in my judgment, is not a reference to regeneration by the Holy Spirit, although it prepares the way for understanding both the necessity of it and the nature of it. The contrast is that which Paul has been emphasized throughout, the written code as opposed to an internal submission to it. The operative phrase is “in spirit, not letter.” The emphasis on circumcision pointed to a spiritual, heart felt obedience. Deuteronomy 10:12-16. Deuteronomy 30:6 shows what the circumcised heart means and also shows that in the fallen condition it takes a supernatural work to do it. Jeremiah 4:4, Judah is commanded to circumcise themselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of their hearts. God threatens punishment to those that are “circumcised merely in the flesh” but not circumcised in heart. Jeremiah 10:25, 26.

VI. 3:1-20 – Paul draws his argument to a close that all universally are law-breakers and thus under condemnation.

A. 3:1-8 – Paul gives a brief response to several closely aligned objections.

1. That the Jews fare no better in the matter of righteousness than the Gentiles implies that all of God’s actions toward them have been vain, and mere charade. [1] Paul’s response is not full but a mere suggestion. Note he says, “To begin with.” He treats this more fully in 9-11. At any rate, the possession of the oracles of God is an absolute advantage and their loss of the advantage is due to moral perversity, not the uselessness of revelation.

2.  Their refusal to respond to God’s favors and be the people of God does not render God’s oracles useless for he is still faithful and will form a people for himself. 3, 4

3. If human unrighteousness, particularly the unrighteousness of a people so favored, highlights the surpassing excellence of God’s intrinsic righteousness, then why are we subject to wrath. Shouldn’t our being the occasion of displaying the greater glory of God be a matter of congratulations. No, for the point of such a phenomenon is to demonstrate the purity of God’s judgment of the world. Sin is real and God’s wrath is a just reaction to it. 5, 6

4. Paul then in an argumentum reductio ad absurdum, Paul extrapolates such an argument into the possible objection that if our lie makes God’s truth abound or if doing evil promotes the greater good, then lying and doing evil are to be celebrated and seen as promoting the divine glory. Paul’s strong emphasis on divine purpose and divine sovereignty had made some people accuse him of this view. In future chapters he expands this discussion, but for the present purpose of his discussion, he rejects the objections and their implications not merely as absurd, but as sinister, destructive, and provocative of divine wrath. 7, 8

B. 3:9-20 – Paul now brings this lengthy discussion to the conclusion that all people everywhere, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, those that have the law in writing and those that have it only on the heart are under divine wrath. “Both Jews and Greeks are under sin.” 9 Paul employs a catena of Old Testament passages that describe the wicked, and applies them to every person. He shows that Scripture points to every aspect of our being and condemns it as sinful. When this is seen in clarity in the day of the final revelation of our culpability before God, none will offer any objections to God’s righteous judgment. The doctrinal sparring that some did with Paul on this issue (as indicated in 3:1-8) will vanish and the irresponsible blasphemous vanity of such reasoning will explode. “Every mouth will be stopped.” The law, in our present state of sin” cannot result in righteousness, but only in the knowledge of sin.

VII.  3:21-26  If any of the human race will enjoy the presence of the glory of God, given our sinfulness, how can this come about?

A.  This same righteousness that Paul has been examining as being contained in both the written law and the law on the heart is revealed. It is revealed also in the requirement of faith in Christ. (22.)

B. Our sin means that any benefit we receive from God must be a matter of pure grace. It is a gift entirely and is completely without cause as it relates to righteousness or merit or the part of sinners. 24 a

C. As far as God is concerned, however, it is not without cause, without cost, or without merit.

D. Paul points to redemption and propitiation as elements of God’s operations of salvation. Redemption means that a purchase has been made to free one that was a slave. The price of freedom has been set forth and the slave now can legally go free. The price itself, was the propitiatory offering made by the Father himself of his beloved Son. This means that all the wrath, fury, tribulation, and distress that should come to the sinner fell on Christ and fully satisfied his righteous requirements for punishment. We can do nothing but look to it with the submission to its truth as the legitimate judgment on our sin and as providing the only place of refuge. It is this act of God’s that renders him righteous in all else that he does in justifying us and then fitting us for the holy and joyful employments of heaven (Romans 8:32)  (24b-26)