A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 1:18 – 3:20. The wrath of God against all humankind.
Nothing keeps people away from Christ more than their inability to see their need of him or their unwillingness to admit it. As Jesus put it: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Mk. 2:17). He was defending against the criticism of the Pharisees his policy of fraternizing with ‘tax collectors and “sinners”’. He did not mean by his epigram about the doctor that some people *are* righteous, so that they do not need salvation, but that some people *think* they are. In that condition of self-righteousness they will never come to Christ. For just as we go to the doctor only when we admit that we are ill and cannot cure ourselves, so we will go to Christ only when we admit that we are guilty sinners and cannot save ourselves. The same principle applies to all our difficulties. Deny the problem, and nothing can be done about it; admit the problem, and at once there is the possibility of a solution. It is significant that the first of the ‘twelve steps’ of Alcoholics Anonymous is ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.’
To be sure, some people insist with great bravado that they are neither sinful nor guilty, and that they do not need Christ. It would be quite wrong to seek to induce guilty feelings in them artificially. But if sin and guilt are universal (as they are), we cannot leave people alone in their false paradise of supposed innocence. The most irresponsible action of a doctor would be to acquiesce in a patient’s inaccurate self-diagnosis. Our Christian duty is rather, through prayer and teaching, to bring people to accept the true diagnosis of their condition in the sight of God. Otherwise, they will never respond to the gospel.
It is this plain and unpopular principle which lies behind Romans 1:18 – 3:20. Before Paul can show that salvation is equally available to Jews and Gentiles (which he says it is in 1:16), he must prove that they are equally in need of it. So his purpose in this passage is to draw up ‘the indictment that all, Jews and Greeks alike, are under the power of sin’ (Rom.3:9b, REB), so that ‘the whole world may be exposed to God’s judgment’ (Rom. 3:19b, REB). He does more than bring an accusation; he marshalls the evidence against us, in order to prove our guilt and secure our conviction. All men and women (Jesus being the solitary exception) are sinful, guilty and without excuse before God. Already they are under his wrath. Already they stand condemned. It is a theme of great solemnity. It is also the necessarily dark background against which the gospel shines brightly, and an indispensable foundation for world evangelization.
The way Paul demonstrates the universality of human sin and guilt is to divide the human race into several sections and to accuse them one by one. In each case his procedure is identical. He begins by reminding each group of their knowledge of God and of goodness. He then confronts them with the uncomfortable fact that they have not lived up to their knowledge. Instead, they have deliberately suppressed it, even contradicted it, by continuing to live in unrighteousness. And therefore they are guilty, inexcusably guilty, before God. Nobody can plead innocence, because nobody can plead ignorance.
First (1:18-32), he portrays *depraved Gentile society* in its idolatry, immorality and antisocial behaviour.
Secondly, (2:1-16), he addresses *critical moralizers* (whether Gentiles or Jews), who profess high ethical standards and apply them to everybody except themselves.
Thirdly, (2:17-3:8), he turns to *self-confident Jews*, who boast of their knowledge of God’s law, but do not obey it.
Fourthly, (3:9-20), he encompasses *the whole human race* and concludes that we are all guilty and without excuse before God.
Throughout this long passage, in which the apostle gradually but relentlessly builds his case, he never loses sight of the good news of Christ. Indeed, ‘the righteousness of God’ (that is, as we have seen, his righteous way of ‘righteoussing’ the unrighteous) is the only possible context in which he could dare to expose the squalor of human unrighteousness, In 1:17 he has stated that ‘in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed’. In 3:21 he will repeat his statement almost word for word: ‘But now a ighteousness from God…has been made known.’ It is between these two great affirmations of the revelation of God’s gracious righteousness that Paul sandwiches his terrible exposure of human unrighteousness (1:8 – 3:20).
Tomorrow: Rom. 1:18-32 . Depraved Gentile society.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.