Human Faithlessness Chapter 1:18-3:20
Bearing in mind that he’s writing to a congregation of Christians made up of Jews and Gentiles and knowing that he wants these brothers and sisters to help him in his missionary work (15:14-24) Paul wants to let them know his understanding of God’s gospel that would work unity among them (14:1—15:13; Acts 28:17-31). In 1:1-17 he makes it clear that “the gospel of God” has Jewish roots but embraces the Gentiles as part of His intention (1:1-4, 16-17 in particular—a truth he keeps in mind throughout Romans).
In 1:16 he speaks of God’s “righteousness” by which he has in mind God’s faithfulness, that is, God doing what “is right” in the matter of keeping His commitment to Abraham’s physical children and through them to the nations (see Acts 15:13-21 where James sees Gentile conversions as part of God’s faithfulness in keeping with Amos 9:11-12). The word Dikaiosune has a wider semantic domain than faithfulness but context determines what aspect of a big rich word is on a writer’s mind when he uses it. In Romans 1:16 Paul says that God’s gospel about His Son (1:1-3; 15:16, 19) reveals His keeping faith with Himself and His commitment to saving anyone that wants Him.
The faithless human family from Adam until Moses
In 1:18—3:20 Paul begins to stress the unfaithfulness of the human family. It knew the nature and will of God (1:18, 21) and suppressed that truth “in unrighteousness”—note what they knew in 1:21-32. Paul isn’t doing “natural theology”—he is painting a picture of a faithless human family (from the creation until Moses) hat suppressed the truth they knew and corrupted themselves and all around them. They made gods out of the creation and fools out of themselves and despised life by choosing death (1:32). They were created in God’s image to rejoice in life, reflecting Him, and they corrupted themselves.
(In that human rebellion the non-human creation became an unwitting instrument and servant of Sin. See Romans 8:18-22 and texts such as Leviticus 18:24-30; Numbers 35:33-34; Isaiah 62:4-6; Ezekiel 33:29 and context with a careful reading of 36 in its entirety which addresses the land and how it became (as it is to this day) an occasion for many to jeer at God. In addition it was perverted and was treated as if it were God instead of the creature (Romans 1:18-23). Note the Pantheists like Einstein and Kaku, Spinoza, Tillich and others who call the creation “God”.) Paul stamps FAITHLESS (unrighteous) across the “Gentile” world.
From there he moves to Sinai, the creation of Israel (compare Isaiah 43:1,7; 44:2,21,24; 49:5 and elsewhere) and Israel’s apostasy (Romans 2:1-3:19) and stamps FAITHLESS (unrighteousness) across Israel’s history. The whole world is under God’s judgment and whether it had a specially enacted covenantal Law as Israel did or had the moral truth not in covenant form as Gentiles did (see Ephesians 2:11-12) the human family as a family proved faithless (Romans 3:19-20).
(He will later summarize humanity as non-redeemed and “in Adam”, the old man—5:12-14, 20-21 with 6:6.)
The Faithful God
From history and Holy Scripture Paul has shown human faithlessness and now in 3:21—5:11 the shows God’s faithfulness. God had not abandoned his eternal purpose and the proof of that was the witness of the Old Testament scriptures that culminated in the person and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ (3:21-26).
He reminds the Jewish element that their own confession (the Shema) is that there is one God and if that’s true there is only one Creator and so there is only one human family and God cares for it in its entirety as its Father Creator (3:27-31). And since that human family (Jew & non-Jew) has no claim based either on its response to God’s manifest will or its fleshly link to Abraham, salvation and glory is sourced in a gracious God (Romans 11:32) and not in fleshly connection, circumcision as a mark of a covenant. In fact, with Israel having been especially gifted they were the more responsible for their faithless response (Romans 3:1-2, 9 and see Ezekiel 16:48-52 as illustrating greater accountability due to greater blessing).
Why is a message about God’s faithfulness such good news? Part of the answer is implied in 1:18—3:20 where Paul charts the sinful course of human history. In light of humanity’s treacherous betrayal of God and our crass abuse of the dominion he gave to us (Genesis 1:26-27 with Genesis 3) it might be thought that God would obliterate us.
And in some ways the biblical record could be seen as proof that God had abandoned humanity. The expulsion of Adam, Eve and Cain from God’s presence, Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah could be used as proof that God had turned from humanity and was bent only on destroying them in outbursts of His anger. If such expressions of His anger were typical of His full feelings toward the human race our situation would be hopeless and lead to utter despair. But Paul’s good news is that God is righteous (faithful to His commitments) even in the face of our faithlessness. This means that however we understand the wrath of God it is to be seen as part of his faithfulness toward us.
God’s faithfulness through Abraham is for All
Romans 4 develops the history of God’s faithfulness and how it moves through Abraham and culminates in Jesus in 5:12-21. Od’s choice of Abraham as His instrument of blessing was all about God’s holy generosity and not Abraham’s pedigree or his behavior. (Glance at Joshua 24:2-3 & Abraham’s dealings with Pharaoh, Abimelech and Sarah when he feared contrary to God’s promise and how he engaged with Hagar to gain an heir through her). Sarah’s inability to conceive and Abraham’s own aged body that wasn’t old (Romans 4:13-25) said that the initiative was always of the gracious God. The man himself was not special—God was and Abraham trusted God to be faithful and was faithful to God and all that was prior to circumcision & Sinai the covenant. The entire Abrahamic history was about faith in God to bring life out of death and that is the point Paul makes in 4:19-25. The consequences and implications flowing from that are mentioned in 5:1-11.
Then he summarizes human death and loss in father Adam, as a fit representative of a fallen humanity and the last Adam (5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45 with Romans 6:6 and 7:4-6).