Paul wrote Romans 1:18-3:20 to the Roman church with a pastoral intention. He’s not necessarily laying the groundwork for a gospel presentation here, nor is he theologizing in the abstract about the sinful condition of all humanity. It isn’t wrong, of course, to draw theological conclusions from Romans 1-3 about universal human sinfulness, but we must keep in mind that Paul’s immediate point is that God does not have any favorites in the Roman community.
No one has an inside track with God.
Paul begins by stating that God’s wrath is being revealed against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” While Paul paints in broad strokes in vv. 18-32, he arrives at his point in Rom. 2:1. Neither group in Rome should be passing judgment on the other.
In Rom. 2:1-13, Paul depicts the final judgment in terms of conformity to God’s design for humanity rather than conformity to standards of Jewish identity. He does this to demonstrate that everyone—both Jews and non-Jews among the Roman Christians—is subject to the same judgment. Being part of the historic people of God shaped by the Law is irrelevant at the final judgment. What matters is participating in God’s program of restoring humanity. If a person participates in this, he will participate in the coming restored order, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish. If he does not participate in this but remains a selfish, disobedient person, he will be judged, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish.
Paul again states his point: “for there is no partiality with God” (v. 11). God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians.
Rom. 2:6-13, by the way, has given fits to interpreters in the Reformed tradition because Paul puts final judgment in terms of human action and plainly states that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (v. 13). James, of course, wouldn’t lift an eyebrow, nor would those who rightly understand Paul. Many, however, do everything they can to avoid reading Paul’s words plainly. As I’ve said previously, Paul is not reflecting timelessly or abstractly on a theology of justification. He’s writing a pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church in Rome that is facing communal breakdown because of racial tension.
In v. 13, Paul distinguishes those who are Jewish from “the doers of the Law.” They aren’t the same. It is one thing to be “of the works of the Law” or “a hearer of the Law” (to be ethnically Jewish), and quite another to be a “doer of the Law” (one whose genuine obedience to the Law is embodied by embracing non-Jewish Christians as equal siblings in God’s new family in Christ).
The gentiles Paul has in mind in Rom. 2:14-17 are the non-Jewish Christians in Rome. While they do not have a historic relationship to the Law of Moses, their obedience to God in Christ is reckoned as just that. It is the work of the Law within them even though they do not have a Jewish mode of life (i.e., they are not “of the works of the Law”).
In Rom. 2:17-29, Paul again makes the point that being Jewish does not give one an inside track with God. The Jews in the Roman church, in fact, are just like the non-Jews in that they are part of a people with a long history of sin.
After all this negative talk about the Jews in Rome, Paul lets up a little in 3:1. They are indeed in a position of advantage since they were entrusted with the Scriptures. But does this mean that the Jews are better than the non-Jews in Rome (v. 9)? Do they have cause for boasting?
“Not at all,” states Paul. “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (v. 9), and the Law closes “every mouth” and makes “all the world” accountable to God (v. 19). This explains Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:20 that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight.” Paul is summarizing his argument that being Jewish does not give a person the inside track with God.
It is important for Paul to begin this letter by arguing that God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians. Two factions are seeking to establish claims over-against the other.
Paul argues that both groups—the Jews and non-Jews—are accountable to God and will be judged if they are disobedient. God’s future judgment is on the basis of obedience to Jesus and one’s ethnicity will be irrelevant on that day. This is Paul’s point in Rom. 1:18-3:20. Reading Romans a pastoral letter rather than as a theological treatise makes this plain.
I might also add that when read this way, Rom. 1:18-3:20 becomes immensely practical for churches dealing with internal tensions, conflict, or any other communal breakdown. Romans, rightly read, is a rich resource for conflict-resolution.