Foundational for the preaching of the Gospel is a proper view of the pervasive effects of sin on the human race. Paul therefore begins with the “pagan world,” people which everyone would agree are not living in a way that pleases God (or any god for that matter). Paul then moves on to Gentiles who do live a morally exemplary life (2:1-15) and Jews who ought to live moral lives but do not (2:16-29). He will conclude there is no one who is righteous before God and no one who even seeks God (3:1-20).
Who is this passage talking about? It is possible Paul has an earlier period of history in mind in Romans 1:18-32. Morna Hooker pointed out the rabbinic tradition that Adam’s sin was failing to give glory to God (therefore losing his own glory) and listening to the word of a creature (the serpent) rather than God’s word. A serious problem with this view is the late date of the Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, Hooker’s sources for this tradition.
It is tempting to see the section as describing the period from Adam to the flood, a time when humans lived by their conscience and, by the end of the period, they were wholly evil all of the time (Gen 6:5). But there is little reason to think Paul would be thinking only of the pre-flood world since his point is humans have fallen short of the glory of God at the present time.
Most commentators on Romans think Paul has the Gentile world in mind in this opening chapter. For the most part his description in this section is not unlike any other Jewish polemic against the pagan world. The Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 makes a remarkably similar to Paul’s in Romans 1. Wisdom is a Second Temple text which
Wisdom of Solomon 14:22 (NRSV) Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace.
But as Cranfield points out, the practices listed in this chapter are true for all people, both Jew and Greek (Romans, 1:105). It is not as though the Jews avoided idolatry in the Old Testament, nor can it be said the Jewish people do not commit the sins listed in this chapter.
Paul may have expected his Jewish readers to be in complete agreement with this condemnation on the Gentiles, and the Gentiles were in a position to know he is telling the truth about the pagan world. This is a “rhetorical trap.” The Roman Christians who first heard this read in their congregations may have nodded in agreement and added a hearty “amen”! In the next chapter Paul will then argue even those who think they have righteousness have “fallen short of the glory of God.”
I wonder if this chapter gets the same reaction in contemporary culture. Some churches would likely agree with Paul that “those people out there” are sinners and deserve to be in the hands of an angry God. But for those who are outside of traditional, mainstream churches this passage sounds judgmental, they do not like the idea of an angry, wrathful God justly judging sinners. How should Christians approach the theological idea of sin in a world which is deeply offended by Christians who call their lifestyle “sin”?