ESSAYS | PAUL AND THE HUMAN CONDITION
Captain Michael Ramsay shares his thoughts on Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:18-32; 2:1-16, and considers Paul’s words on the Human Condition. Michael, his wife Susan and their two daughters were recently appointed to the Nipawin Corps in the Prairie Division.
Paul and the Human Condition as reflected in Romans 1:18-32 and 2:1-16
Presented to Dr. Roy Jeal for 1.211 Paul the Apostle (Winter 2007)
By Michael AH Ramsay
“Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece”1 – NT Wright.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in the mid to late 50s2 and is addressed to Gentiles.3 In the mid to late 50s, Rome was by far the Mediterranean world’s dominant power and Nero was the Roman Emperor (54-68 AD, Proconsul since 51AD).
Pertaining to the theme of Romans and not wanting to devote an excessive amount of space to introductory issues, I have to acknowledge that “we must be careful not to impose on Romans a single theme when Paul may never have thought in those terms…a theme that fits 1:16-11:36 may not fit the whole.”4 In contrast to this difficulty, “the easiest thing to determine about Romans is its basic shape. Its four sections emerge clearly: chaps. 1-4, 5-8, 9-11, and 12-16.”5 Chapters 1-4 can be broken down into 1:18-3:20 and 3:21-4:25,6 and 1:18-3:20 can further be divided into 1:18-32; 2:1-16, 17-29; 3:9-20, 21-26 and 3:27-4:25.7 For the purposes of this paper, I will examine Paul’s understanding of the human condition as it is related in Romans 1:18-32 and 2:1-16.
Romans 1: 18-32
The section begins with Paul acknowledging the human condition of those who “by their wickedness [asebeia] suppress the truth (1:18).” This is significant. Their condition is stated as receiving the wrath of God for good reason: Paul points out that the truth they are suppressing must be plain to them for God, himself, has shown it to them (1:19) through the evidence of His creation. Ever since the beginning of the world, God’s power and nature have been understood (v.20).
Though this truth was revealed to them, they neither honoured God nor gave Him the thanks He deserves; rather ‘claiming to be wise they became fools’ in that they abandoned the glory of the creator so that they might worship the image of the created (cf. Psalm 106:20). It is because they, without any good excuse, disregarded the truth and followed this lie that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity (v.24).” The human condition here is, by way of denying the obvious truth, one of rebellion against God.
Much could be written on the lists included in vv.26-31. What is significant for our purposes here is that God gave the truth-deniers up to their “unnatural” (para physin) passions (v.26): they had intercourse with people of the same gender and “received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (v.27).”8 Further, “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind (v.28):” they were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, God-hatred, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventing evil, rebellion against parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness (vv.29-31; cf. 2 Tim 3:2,3). This is the general human condition of the truth-deniers while acknowledging that “sinful man is capable of committing all of them [these sins], but not every individual is necessarily guilty of every one.”9 These truth-deniers, Paul asserts, are aware that they deserve to die for participating in these things and that they not only partake of these actions but also encourage others to indulge in the very same acts. The result, then, of disregarding the truth about the divine nature and eternal power of God is to be given over to these unnatural desires and to act upon a debased mind; this is the human condition and for this they deserve to die.
This next section is interesting. Paul claims in verse one that no one, whoever you are, has any excuse (cf. 1:18) to condemn others, for you, whoever you are, are doing the very same things. You, whoever you are, are committing the evil acts that come from worshiping the created over the creator and are worthy of the judgement of God.
It is worth examining here the ‘whoever you are’ from verse one. Until this point in the letter Paul has been using the third person plural pronoun (‘they’ in English) to refer to people whose actions he is discussing. He here describes people using the second person singular, ‘you’. This is not to say that he is referring to the recipients of the letter, as that would necessitate a plural form of the word. Rather, “Paul utilizes here…a literary style called diatribe. Diatribe style, which is attested in several ancient authors as well as elsewhere in the NT (e.g., James), uses the literary device of an imaginary dialogue with a student or an opponent.”10 So who is this ‘you’ that is being addressed? It is probably not a specific person but rather an imaginary one who personifies many arguments that Paul may have previously refuted on this topic. This ‘you’ may be representative of a condemning Jew to contrast with the wicked Gentile ‘they,’11 in which case it would say here that the Jew will judged as well as the Gentile. By ‘you’ however, Paul may have also meant the Gentiles who deplore the aforementioned evil actions.12 Either way, this is a significant change of language and it espouses judgement upon the judge and condemnation upon the self-righteous moralizer.13 You, whoever you are, are not immune to this human condition of being guilty of rebellion against God.
Verses 3-5, through a series of rhetorical questions, point to the hypocrisy of claiming one thing and yet doing another: “Do you imagine…that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (2:3-5).” Even in this judgement, grace can be seen. For while these actions by the truth-deniers lead to death, God’s kindness is meant to lead to repentance for God “will repay according to each one’s deeds (v.6).” The human condition of the truth-deniers is that they are more than creation worshipers (cf. v.25); they are self-seeking (cf. Gen 3:6) in their wrath-provoking disobedience of truth (cf. 1:18) and therefore every bit as guilty as they who were mentioned in Chapter One.
Verse 9 mentions ‘the Jew’ explicitly for the first time in Romans. This is important for “contrary to popular Jewish belief, the sins of the Jews will not be treated by God significantly different from those of the Gentiles.”14 They will be judged just as the Gentiles will be judged. This is the human condition: “All who have sinned apart from the law will perish apart from the law (cf. 1:20-21), and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law (2:12, cf. 2:1).”
It is not those who hear the law – for they may be truth-deniers or rejecters – but it is those who obey the law that are justified (v.13). Verses 14-15 are an expression of a central part of Paul’s expressed concept of the human condition. Even the Gentiles who do not have the law are able to do what the law requires for it is written on their hearts. On the day of judgement the conscience of both the Jew and the Gentile will bear witness and their own thoughts will either accuse or excuse them before the Lord (2:14-16). These verses contain obvious reference to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 where it is recorded that the law will be ‘written on the hearts of the Israelites’ but it is also an acknowledgement of the good news of Genesis 12:3: the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled for all nations of the earth. They are now blessed as even the Gentiles ‘have the law written on their hearts.’
All of this then is the human condition according to Paul in Romans 1:18-32 and 2:1-16. Those who deny the abundant evidence of God’s eternal power and divine nature (1:19-20) are rightly exposed to the wrath of God (1:18, 2:8), which results in being given over to their unnatural desires to act upon a debased mind. As a consequence of this sin, this rebellion, that they commit, they are condemned and deserve to die. Neither moralizing nor the Torah can save anyone. Christ, however, has ushered in the new covenant (cf. Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Hebrews 8, 9, 12:24); therefore, repentance (2:4), blessing (Gen 12:3), justification (2:13), and righteousness (2:13) await those ‘doers of the law’ which is now written on their hearts. In Christ we are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
Dunn, James D.G. Romans 1-8. WBC 38A: Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1988.
______________. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1998.
Harrison, Everett F. “Romans.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. CD-ROM: Version: 4.0.2. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan / Pradis, 1992.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT 6. Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.
Soards, Marion L. The Apostle Paul: an Introduction to his Writings and Teachings. New York / Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987
Stott, John. Romans: God’s Good News for the World. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1994.
Strom, Mark. Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2000.
Wright, N.T. “The Letter to the Romans.” Pages 393-370 in New Interpreters Bible 10. Edited by Leander E. Keck. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2002.