Since N. T. Wright is the world’s foremost scholar on Paul, we should begin with a few words of wisdom from him —
Romans 1, of course, contains the most famous of the New Testament passages regarding homosexual activity, but as we’ve seen, hardly the only one. Indeed, every passage that condemns “sexual immorality” speaks against homosexual activity. After all, most if not all the New Testament books were written either to a Jewish audience or an audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and any First Century Jew would understand homosexual activity to be immoral.
Nonetheless, because Paul gives his most thorough exposition on homosexual activity in Romans 1, it remains a critical passage to study. But as is so often true in Romans, we must come to the text ready to immerse ourselves in Pauline thought.
(Rom 1:16 ESV) 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
The church in Rome was likely predominantly Gentile, although having many Jewish members. Moreover, it’s likely that many Gentile members had been “God fearers” before Jesus was preached to them, that is, Gentiles who worshiped the God of the Jews but had not become proselytes. It appears that Paul assumes a high degree of Old Testament knowledge among his readers.
Paul introduces a major theme of Romans: the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the Kingdom. We tend to ignore these passages because they don’t seem relevant to us today, but the relationship of Jews and Gentiles is such a major theme of Romans, that we miss much of what Paul is saying if we try to edit the Jew-Gentile controversy out.
Why the Jews first? Well, because God elected the Jews when he elected Abraham. Their place in cosmic history is to be the source of the gospel among humans. They’ve enjoyed a special relationship with God for centuries — all so that the gospel could be preached in the First Century and later.
(Rom 1:17 ESV) 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
“Righteousness of God” is his covenant faithfulness. God’s covenant with Abraham is discussed in detail later, but it’s presence and importance permeates the earlier chapters.
“From faith for faith” can also be translated “from faith to faith.” It can be read to mean from the faith of a new convert to the faith of the mature Christian. Or from the faithfulness of God to the faithfulness of Christians, that is, that God by being faithful to the covenant with Abraham is producing believers who are faithful to Jesus, in fulfillment of the covenant. There are many possibilities, and they may all be right. Paul’s intent is to emphasize the centrality of the faithfulness of God/faith in Jesus/faithfulness to Jesus in the gospel both in personal and historical terms.
“The righteous shall live by faith” is taken from —
(Hab 2:3-4 ESV) 3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end — it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. 4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
The NET Bible translators explain —
The Hebrew word אֱמוּנָה (‘emunah) has traditionally been translated “faith,” but the term nowhere else refers to “belief” as such. When used of human character and conduct it carries the notion of “honesty, integrity, reliability, faithfulness.”
Hence, as is so often true in Paul, “faith” can also be translated “faithfulness,” and often both meanings are present. Indeed, in the Septuagint, the phrase refers to God’s faithfulness.
(Rom 1:18 ESV) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Paul suddenly introduces a very difficult term: “the wrath of God.” “Indignation” is another possibility. In contemporary English, “wrath” is often used of an extreme, vengeful anger, whereas the thought here is more about God’s justice. God will not allow wickedness to go unpunished.
God’s punishment will be real but it will be just. God is outraged by sin, but he’ll be true to his own just nature.
“Ungodliness” refers to mankind’s departure from godliness. As we studied last fall in the Creation 2.0 series, we can define sin as departure from the image of God. Hence, “ungodliness” is a very precise definition of sin.
Just so, in Paul’s vocabulary, “righteousness” has to do with covenant faithfulness, and so “unrighteousness” carries the thought of violating a covenant with God.
I might go so far as to conclude that “ungodliness” refers to all people, but especially Gentiles who’ve abandoned all notions of adhering to God’s image. “Unrighteousness” probably refers more to the Jews, who were in covenant relationship with God due to God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David.
Thus, “suppress the truth” means “suppress the truth about God” or “God’s revelation of himself to people.” The Jews, of course, had a far more comprehensive revelation of God by virtue of the Patriarchs, the Law, and the prophets — not to mention Jesus. The Gentiles would have only a much more distant memory of God, since they had not been elected to enjoy God’s special revelation and presence.
(Rom 1:19 ESV) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Paul has to quickly point out that even the Gentiles are suppressing the truth about God because has revealed himself sufficiently to even them — despite the absence of the Law, etc.
Paul may have been thinking simply that the creation itself demonstrates the existence of a Creator. He may have been thinking of Plato’s Prime Mover —
Plato posited a basic argument in The Laws (Book X), in which he argued that motion in the world and the Cosmos was “imparted motion” that required some kind of “self-originated motion” to set it in motion and to maintain that motion. Plato posited a “demiurge” of supreme wisdom and intelligence as the creator of the Cosmos in his work Timaeus.
Hence, nearly 400 years before Paul, some of the Greeks concluded that there was a singular god who created the universe.
But there’s more to Paul’s argument.
(Rom 1:20 ESV) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Who is “they”? The most recent antecedent is “men” back in Rom 1:18. Hence, all men — Jews and Gentiles — are without excuse because God has sufficiently revealed himself even to Gentiles for them to stand condemned for their known sins.
Paul’s argument assumes that we are only accountable for the knowledge of God and right and wrong that we have. Hence, Paul feels obliged to demonstrate that all men know enough so that they can fairly be judged for their sins.
Now, it’s not as though the Gentiles were universally aware that Yahweh, God of the Jews, had made the heavens and the earth. That’s not quite the point. Rather, the Creation gives evidence that there is a Creator, who is powerful and higher than mankind.