Romans 1:18-32: The Premise of False Teaching Rejected by Paul

The discussion in the first 3 chapters of Romans only broaches Paul’s main point in his gospel. This discussion concludes that all are culpable, all have sinned, and there is no advantage to having the law, but by chapter 7, it is not just that the law is of no help, but the law itself is implicated in the problem. In chapter 7 Paul is referencing the commandment given to Adam and Eve, so that the law and its problems are universalized. It is not only Jews who have a law problem, all people in Adam have the same problem.  It does not matter if the reference is to Jewish or Gentile law, the law of Moses or the law theoretically written on the heart. It does not matter what the source of this law is, as sin creates a deception in regard to the law. Romans 7, implicating the law (period) as giving rise to sin, needs to be kept in mind in chapters 1-3, as in many traditional readings Paul will be attributed with teaching a contradictory understanding to his conclusion in chapter 7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. . ..  The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me” (7:7a; 10-12). Far from teaching that the law is foundational to the gospel, Paul teaches that the gospel delivers those in bondage to the law. Chapters 1-3 is an illustration of how this bondage works, while Romans 4-8 pictures how rescue occurs. Read retrospectively, we can see that Paul is building a case in these first three chapters, not just that the law is of no advantage, but that the law is part of the problem.

It is not just that the human problem is not to be perceived in terms of law and its transgression, but this wrong perception is the problem. The law, which gives rise to forbidden desire, in spite of the life that it seemed to offer and due to the deception of sin, produces death for the ἐγὼ or a life of death described as an agonistic struggle in which the self is split against itself and sin is in control. Paul sums this up as the “body of death” (7:24) or “the law of sin and death” (8:2). The law of sin and death is the structuring principle of the Subject in which life is controlled by an orientation to death due to law (a primordial deception and a destructive drive).

In Paul’s depiction of the Subject, participation in the Trinity is displaced by participation in the law. Specifically, the law displaces relationship with God as Abba, and instead of being found in Christ the struggle with the I or the ego is definitive, displacing life in the Spirit with a death dealing deception. Righteousness perceived on the basis of the law is the sin problem directly addressed by Christ: “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). Being made dead to law (whether Jewish or Gentile), delivered from its strictures, is a key part of salvation.

If we should imagine Romans 1:18-32 is the last word or even the beginning word in regard to the human situation, the conclusion is that the wrath of God is primary. There is no mention of the love of God, which Paul will describe as primary (in chapter 8). The compassion of God has no place in this understanding, and God’s mercy – at least for these pagans – is absent. God judges and condemns, and the notion that he might forgive cannot be contemplated, as God’s righteousness demands judgment. But we know Paul does not think wrath and retribution are the essential nature of God, though in this presentation, all people, but especially non-Jewish people, are culpable and damned. They know what they should do and yet cannot help themselves. They have a law written on their heart, they have a natural revelation about God, but they have chosen to be idolaters and have become sexual predators and perverts. They could have enlightened minds, but instead they are totally depraved with their hearts completely darkened.

In this system, it is not clear whether the culpability is assigned to individuals or to the group as a whole, as it seems some got sin rolling with initial sins, and then this block of humanity suffers the consequences. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “It speaks in strongly condemning tones about others: ‘they have sinned and sinned and sinned again, . . . and I can assure you personally that God is angry with them’ (‘since he and I are on such good terms,’ one is tempted to add).”[1] The “they” here, as a result, is unclear. Who exactly has this philosophical opportunity to recognize the omnipotence, omniscience, and justice of God? It seems an original few may have ruined it for the rest. “After a foolish rejection of the single transcendent God, the disobedient pagans in the passage are rapidly overwhelmed by lusts . . . becoming so immersed in depraved behavior that they generate an entire culture of idolatry and sexual immorality (so vv. 23–27). The pagans are collectively trapped.”[2] By the end of the passage, philosophical man is gone, and subsequent generations are inundated with sinful passions and ultimately murder. Is it fair that they still be expected to know God and act accordingly. Can they “fairly be expected either to perceive a transcendent God or to act in accordance with that God’s wishes.”[3] It would seem there is a fundamental inequity for those who suffer the consequences of the decisions of those given the original opportunity. Where an original few had the possibility to save themselves at the judgment through wisdom, those who come after are tricked by wisdom.

Wisdom is now foolishness, which shows itself in their worship of the creation. They are “filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Ro 1:29–32). God is angry, retributive, and punishing. Pagans are going to die in their sins, and they deserve it. They are getting their just deserts.

If this is simply Paul’s opinion, we hear nothing of the self-indictment which will come later in the letter, or in notions that he is the chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15). Are pagan idolaters peculiarly sinful in Paul’s theology, and how does this accord with his notion in Galatians that Judaizing Christians are guilty of idolatry? Whoever Paul is giving voice to, it is in the third person, and he or she is not included among these pagans and their idolatrous ways. As Campbell has described it, this person “has taken the ethical and rhetorical high ground in relation to the pagans, with a striking absence of self-knowledge . . ..  He speaks of God, perhaps as something of a self-appointed representative; indeed, he discloses the future wrath of God now in his own preaching, thereby in part deploying it himself! But this figure has not included himself within this orbit of fallibility. He stands outside and above it. Hence, even if there are elements of truth in what he is saying, the tone of his judgment is potentially repugnant.”[4]

Is this Paul’s starting premise in regard to the human situation, or is this in fact the understanding of a false Teacher he is refuting? What is at stake in our reading of the opening of Romans is nothing short of our understanding of reality. In Romans there are two possible anthropologies, cosmologies and theologies. If we do not clearly sort out the difference here in Romans 1-3, the danger is we will imagine the false anthropology, ontology and theology are presumed by Paul. In these verses retributive justice is the only option, judgment is on the basis of works, and all people have access to full knowledge of God through revelation (they would not need Jesus Christ if they had only done what they know is right).

It is easy to imagine the Teacher giving the amen to 1:18-32, and then extending the argument. “These pagans do not have the benefit of the Mosaic law, by which means idolatry is avoided and enlightened thinking capitalized upon. We possessors of the law control our base desires – you will not find sexual perverts or gossips among us. We circumcised ones, by the very efficacy of this sign receive the benefits of having our desires curtailed.” Texts, such as Maccabees, describe the virtues conveyed by the law – “the goodness or rightness, wisdom, self-control, and courage—to conquer their own bodily appetites and passions even in the most extreme circumstances, here excruciating pain, fear, loss, and humiliation under torture (and this at the hands of dissolute passionate pagans, it should be noted!).”[5] Paul may be arguing so extensively in regard to circumcision, as this is the key sign the Teacher emphasizes. Philo explains the advantages conveyed by circumcision, and the Teacher may presume as much:

It prevents disease (4), “secures the cleanliness of the whole body” (5), makes “the part that is circumcised … [‘resemble’] the heart”—and both organs are, after all, concerned with generation, the heart of thoughts and “the generative organ … of living beings” (6), and allows the seminal fluid to proceed easily, making those nations practicing circumcision the most numerous (7). Philo goes on to suggest, however, that these rationalizations are traditional (8); he supplies two further arguments of a symbolic nature that are closely related to one another. First, circumcision “is a symbol of the excision of all the pleasures which delude the mind; for since, of all the delights which pleasure can afford, the association of man with woman is the most exquisite, it seemed good to the lawgivers to mutilate the organ which ministers to such connections; by which rite they signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure, not, indeed, of one only, but of all others whatever, through that one which is the most impervious of all” (9). Similarly, circumcision is a symbol of “discarding that terrible disease, the vain opinion of the soul” (10). Here, then, circumcision is symbolic of the excision of vice and of the achievement of a superior ethical state, which Philo goes on to link immediately not merely with sound sexual ethics but with the absence of idolatry.[6]

The Teacher cannot imagine how sin is going to be curtailed and ethics instigated apart from circumcision and the Jewish law. These pagan Christians will need to be circumcised, they will need to practice Jewish ethics, and only in this way will they be declared righteous at the judgment.

Whether or not there is a specific false Teacher who may have proposed this understanding (the proposal of Douglas Campbell), what is obvious in chapters 2-3 is that on the basis of the premises here laid out, in the words of Richard Hays, Paul has set up a sting operation.

Romans 1:18–32 sets up a homiletical sting operation. The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then, in Romans 2:1, the sting strikes: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteous is “without excuse” (anapologētos) before God (2:1), just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are anapologētos (1:20).[7]

As Campbell points out, many interpreters understand that Paul is trapping someone in their own argument, but the problem is who (or whom) and why? This is not the argument of a typical Jew, but more than likely the argument of a false Teacher on the order of the Judaizing false Teacher in Galatia. This Teacher acknowledges Christ but only in conjunction with the law – setting the work of Christ on the foundation of retributive justice, the primacy of wrath, and the necessity of good works. In this understanding Paul is made to agree with the basic theology of 1:18-32, while in the following chapters he is trying to evoke a bit more self-awareness on the part of someone who would presume to judge someone else. “One ought to be aware that one is in the same boat, so to speak; the judge is also a sinner and ought to acknowledge this. Hence, this turn (in chapter 2) is designed to jolt the figure into a healthier level of self-knowledge—one that might elicit repentance and salvation, rather than hard-heartedness and condemnation of others (see esp. 2:3–5).”[8] But is this all that is going on here; namely that Paul wants potential judges of others to repent and receive forgiveness? If this is aimed at Jews in general, does Paul consider hypocrisy intrinsic to Judaism. If this is all there is to it, this judge seems a bit stupid (in Campbell’s words), in preaching just deserts and then excluding himself. Is this what the typical Jew does? Are Jews as a class of people, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid?

According to Paul then—and for the argument construed in these terms to work—Judaism is not merely contractual, conditional, perfectionist, monolithic, and ahistorical, but innately judgmental and hypocritical! It necessarily includes an internal insensitivity to sinfulness, combining this with a rigorously judgmental attitude to outsiders. In short, Jews are stupid as well as conditional. They promulgate a system that, to a man, they do not live up to themselves, but they nevertheless attack others on ethical grounds and are unaware of their own ethical shortcomings.[9]

While some Christian’s may perceive Judaism in this anti-Semitic manner, I presume not many Jews will see themselves in this portrayal. If it is simply Judaism Paul has in mind, is he presuming that this hypocritical Jew is squandering his opportunity to repent (2:4). Is Paul trying to get a stubborn Jew to repent, receive forgiveness, and be saved – and all of this without mention of Christ. Can a pagan or Jew, in the non-Christian phase here described, receive salvation if they repent and start living up to the law? Does phase one of human history, and phase one of the law prior to Christ, contain the possibility of salvation through the law?  

If those trying to do good deeds prior to Christ can sin and then repent, being forgiven those sins, then they may well arrive at the day of judgment effectively righteous. Given the appropriate contrition—which could presumably take place on their death beds if necessary—such individuals would have been forgiven their sins and shortcomings and so be righteous. God would then have to declare them that and save them on the day of judgment, and they would then have been saved independently of Christ, the church, Christian preaching, and Paul![10]

Given these presuppositions, presumably most Jews will be able to repent and be saved and there is no need for Christ.

Lest anyone should miss this is not and cannot be Paul’s understanding of the gospel – he says as much in 2:16: “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” In the middle of this presentation, he notes that all of this is contrary to his gospel. His gospel is not a law-based system, but a Christ based system. Though this is only mentioned in passing, Paul will soon make it clear that Christ does not deliver by means of the law but he delivers from the law. But before Paul lays out his gospel, he is going to show the absurdity of a law-based gospel, a law-based judgment, or a law-based understanding of God.

Chapter 2, in universalizing the presumptions of 1:18-32 undermines the Teacher’s notion. He has passed judgment and has not included himself but presumes to judge all of the pagan world, not submitting himself to the same criteria. This Teacher presumes that because he is a law-keeping Jewish Christian, he has met the required standard. In his understanding, the law and circumcision are the means and measure of righteousness. Possessing the law, including or marked by circumcision, must be the means of constraining the sinful passions, evident especially in pagans. The law saves as judgment will be according to works of the law. If this were the case, then Jews and especially Jewish law-keeping Christians would be at a definite advantage (the Teacher’s point).

Paul is not simply trying to convince a hypocritical Jew to repent, he is arguing this entire system makes no sense. He concedes that circumcision may have value if you practice the law, but if not, it is a worthless sign (2:25). On the other hand, the opposite is true: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (2:26). Paul’s point is the law does not aid in righteousness, and as he will eventually argue, it disenables righteousness.

Paul argues, that according to the criteria of the Teacher there are potentially bad Jews and good pagans. “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:9–10). Paul may be ironically quoting the Teacher in this construal of first and last, as to be damned first may not be a privilege, and there is no real difference between Jew and Gentiles in this scheme (to say nothing of Christian or non-Christian).

This Teacher must be boasting about the efficacy of the law: “you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth” (2:19–20). In the Teacher’s view, the law automatically conveys an advantage, such that those who possess it are to be the guides to the rest of blind humanity. Paul gives an historic example (also recorded by Josephus) of some Jews who do not live up to this standard (2:21-24), not to prove that all Jews are charlatans and robbers of temples, but to show that the law and circumcision do not convey the automatic benefits the teacher imagines nor automatically make the Jews the chosen race. 

Having extracted a firm commitment from the Teacher to the principle of soteriological desert, he uses this principle to eliminate an entire set of supposed Jewish advantages—advantages as the Teacher defines them, that is. The Teacher must submit to these eliminations or be exposed as inconsistent if not hopelessly self-contradictory. Paul seems well aware, moreover, that the principle of desert, when it is strictly applied, is peculiarly destructive to historical and elective concerns. Its strict application can produce quite appalling results, if it is pressed.[11]

By 2:29 Paul has rebutted the Teachers arguments using his own premises: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28–29). By the Teacher’s argument it may be concluded, against the Teacher, that it is righteous gentiles who may judge unrighteous Jews. Jews, even, or especially, by his premises, must be accorded no special privilege.

Paul, however, is going to reject this entire scheme. He does not believe God is retributive, or that righteousness is determined by the law, and so too the traditional reading of 3:1-9 is reversed. Verses 2, 4, and 6 are advocating justice and judgment by works. Paul is usually attributed with this portion of the argument, but this is the Teacher’s argument. It is Paul (in 1,3,5,7 and 9) that questions the advantage of the Jew (3:1), who argues the law is nullified by a lack of faith (v. 5), who suggests a strict works-righteousness system is unfair (v. 7), and who questions that the Jew has any advantage. If we miss Paul is refuting the arguments of the Teacher, not only do we end up with the premises of 1:18-32 but we are likely to get his argument in 3:1-9 exactly wrong, attributing to Paul the argument of the false Teacher and attributing to Paul’s interlocutor (in the traditional understanding) Paul’s point.

The alternative is to recognize that Paul, using the premises of 1:18-32, has refuted the false Teacher. In 3:19-20 he silences the Teacher by driving him into a corner through a series of scripture quotations, the very ones on which he relies. The Teacher may imagine he is rescuing Christian converts by insisting they keep the law, the only way of being saved in his scheme. Paul, on the other hand, considers the teaching that the law is primary as falling short of the true gospel.

Paul makes it clear at the end of chapter 3, should there be any question, he rejects law as the basis of righteousness, he rejects retributive justice, and he rejects the entire scheme of the false Teacher. He clarifies the starting point of his gospel at the conclusion of the chapter:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (3:21–24).  

This clinches the argument, but it also serves as the beginning of Paul’s full explanation of the unconditional gospel.

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 546). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 359-360.

[3] Ibid..

[4] Campbell, 546.

[5] Campbell, 564.

[6] Cited in Campbell, 566.

[7] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), 389. Cited in Campbell 362-363..

[8]  Campbell, 363.

[9] Campbell, 364-365.

[10] Campbell, 367.

[11] Campbell, 551.