This salvation or judgment is for the Jew first and also the Greek, “God shows no partiality.” Having already said Salvation is for the Jew first and then the Greek, Paul now says both Jews and Greeks will be held accountable equally when God judges their works.
Paul describes God as impartiality (προσωπολημψία) in Gal 2:6; Eph 6:9 and Col 3:25, and the word is sometimes included in sin lists (Polycarp, 6:1). The word is derived from πρόσωπον λαμβάνω and only appears in Christian writing and is related to ἀπροσωπολήμπτως, 1 Peter 1:17 (K. Berger, “προσωπολημψία, ας, ἡ” pages 3:179-80 in EDNT).
In the LXX this and similar phrases are used to translate the Hebrew phrase nāśā’ pānîm, “lift up a face.” This is a sign of favor; if a king “lifted your head” he was extending a favor. God does not “lift the head” to show partiality in his judgments. In the Pauline literature, God’s impartiality means he saves both Jews and Greeks on an equal basis, the Jews do not have an advantage as God’s chosen people, nor do the Greeks have a disadvantage because they were outside the covenant given to Israel.
That God is a fair, impartial judge is found frequently in the Second Temple Period, often using similar phrases to Paul’s in Romans 2:11.
1 Enoch 63:8 On the day of our hardship and our tribulation he is not saving us; and we have no chance to become believers. For our Lord is faithful in all his works, his judgments, and his righteousness; and his judgments have no respect of persons.
2 Baruch 44:4 For you see that he whom we serve is righteous and that our Creator is impartial.
Psalms of Solomon 2:16-18 For you have rewarded the sinners according to their actions, and according to their extremely wicked sins. You have exposed their sins, that your judgment might be evident; you have obliterated their memory from the earth. God is a righteous judge and he will not be impressed by appearances.
These verses indicate God is an impartial judge with respect to judging sin. Does that impartiality also extend to salvation? For most Second Temple Jewish writers, Gentiles were going to be punished, although some may respond to God and find salvation in Israel. But this would be a very small percentage of Gentiles.
In the New Testament, Peter’s experience with Cornelius illustrates this well. After Peter preaches the Gospel to Peter, he realizes that God’s impartiality extends even to the Gentiles, a remarkable statement for a Second Temple period Jew (Acts 10:34). Peter was unwilling to share the Gospel with a gentile until God specifically commanded him to go to Cornelius. Even then, it was only after Cornelius received the Holy Spirit that Peter realizes God does not show partiality with respect to salvation.
Paul’s claim that both Jews and Gentiles will be treated the same with respect to God’s justice might have been a surprise to a Jewish reader of Romans. Surely the Jews have advantages over Gentiles as God’s people. How radical is Paul’s claim that both Jews and Gentiles will face an impartial God, either for judgment or salvation?