Have you ever gossiped, boasted, coveted or been disobedient to your parents? Are you aware that you deserve to die for doing that?
Is Paul perhaps overstating his case here a bit? What is the point he is trying to make?
Our culture would very much like to think so, as Romans 1:32 indicates — they not only do these things but approve the practice of such behaviours.
However, despite our innate desire to have others agree that our dubious behaviour is really OK, Paul has already asserted that we actually know better. God has revealed His divine nature and eternal power to everyone so that we are without excuse — we know there at least could be a God and that if there was, He certainly would not approve of this sort of behaviour. This has been established in Romans 1:18-21.
To understand this we need an overview of what Paul’s purpose was in writing to the Roman Christians. Fortunately he tells us fairly plainly in Romans 15:20-24. Basically, Paul wants their support for his plans to spread the gospel to Spain.
Paul is compelled to spread the gospel into regions where Christ is not yet known and this letter to the Christians in Rome is showing why he feels so compelled. He has already stated in Romans 1:14 that he is under obligation to all people to preach the gospel to them.
Then he shows that all people have suppressed the truth about God which is revealed throughout creation. Their thinking has become darkened, they have turned away from acknowledging God to worshiping created things and the creations of their own hands. Therefore God has given people over to debased relationships, from the most intimate through to the superficial. The dysfunction of their relationships and interactions with others is the judgement of God already at work in them.
The unfolding of the beginning of this letter is like the unfolding of the book of Genesis. God creates and His glory is manifest, man reaches out in an attempt to be like God, judgement is pronounced upon man and he is cast from God’s presences yet continues attempting to make himself great with the tower of Babel. The wickedness of man is great and the thoughts of his heart are evil continually (Genesis 6:5). In Romans 1:29-31 Paul lists a sample of the ways in which the thoughts of the hearts of people are evil.
When you read this list of sins do you not resonate with the thought that at least some of these deserve strong punishment? And that all of them are undesirable, that if nobody was foolish, faithless, heartless or ruthless we would all be better off?
Excellent! Paul is wanting you to recognize that there is wrong in the world. Once you acknowledge this he drops the bomb of Romans 2:1.
Paul wants us to come to a judgement on evil and sin, and shows that in judging we also condemn ourselves. He has destroyed the validity of universalism — the notion that everyone will get to heaven, either because they are really not that bad, or because God is not so nasty as to judge and condemn anyone. Chapter 1 of Romans shows plainly that we all not only deserve judgement and wrath, but that we have already been judged and are currently under wrath, having been handed over to debased minds, dishonourable passions and the lusts of our hearts.
THIS is why Paul is compelled to preach the gospel, because it is universally needed! Nobody will get into heaven because they are naturally good or as a result of obeying some hazy understanding they have of God that they comprehend through nature — the general revelation leads to condemnation, not salvation. We suppress the truth, we don’t honour it!
Romans 1:16 clearly states that the gospel is the power of salvation, and Romans 2:8 states that those who do not obey the truth are destined for wrath and fury. Without the gospel, everyone is going to hell.
In case this seems too drastic — nasty, mean old Paul, not that gentle Jesus meek and mild also speaks much about judgement and hell. For example: In the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, the rich man is in torment in hell; Jesus tells us to fear God who can destroy body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28); and he warns that it is better to chop off anything that leads to sin rather than to end up in hell (Mark 9:43-48).
We cannot escape the horrifying truth that all those people who do not respond to the gospel by putting their faith in Jesus Christ will end up in eternal torment in hell. This is an awful thing to consider — it is supposed to be, you should shudder in horror at the thought. Paul was desperate to ensure everyone had access to the truth that can save them from hell.
Paul said, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish“. If we think nobody ‘deserves’ to go to hell then we are the bearers of the only way to stop them ending up there. Whether those people are like us or foreign to us, whether they are atheist academics or drunken louts on the streets, the message is as simple as Romans 10:9.
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
God has given us the book of Romans so we can be completely clear that everyone needs to be saved from the wrath and fury of God, and how to be saved, and the effects our salvation will have upon our hearts. Like Paul we will realize that we are obligated to all people to tell the truth of how to be saved. This sense of obligation is like that of the lepers who found the loot in the Syrian camp after the army had fled (see 2 Kings 7:3-9).
Paul has shown us that every soul who is alive today is under condemnation and destined for horror much worse than that awful siege and famine. Jesus has given us freely a salvation infinitely better than the feast these lepers enjoyed. If we keep this salvation to ourselves, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait till morning light (to tell the good news), punishment will overtake us.”