Righteous Because of Wrath?

One major conundrum in the book of Romans comes in 1:18.

Most commentators (wrongly, of course, but we’ll show them grace) look to the immediately preceding verses as the thesis statement of the letter:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes–to the Jew first as well as the Greek. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faithfulness unto faithfulness, as it is written, “But the Righteous One will live from faithfulness.”

But then, the strange part. Verse 18 begins, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people…”

“For” (γάρ)? Argumentatively, this should mean that Rom 1:16-17 is dependent on v. 18–the wrath of God revealed from heaven is the grounds for the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.

Most often, the “for” is brushed aside as a non-specific connector.

But I wonder if Rom 3 might not help us here.

In the beginning of Rom 3, Paul is wrestling with the place of Jews in this story of God’s saving actions in Christ. What advantage has the Jew? What is the benefit of circumcision? A chapter that has just leveled the playing field, by claiming that uncircumcised Gentiles might, actually, be the heart-circumcised people of God, Paul revisits the “Jew first” element he highlighted in 1:16.

The contrast he draws is between the faithlessness of Israel and the faithfulness of God. Throughout, Paul is playing with the word “faithfulness” (πίστις, πιστεύω), the same Greek word that he builds on in 1:17: God’s righteousness is revealed from faithfulness unto faithfulness. The contrast here is between God’s faithfulness in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people.

In fact, Paul goes on to say, the righteousness of God (again, compare v. 17–the gospel reveals the righteousness of God from faithfulness) is established by “our”, i.e. Israel’s, unrighteousness.

God’s truth, Paul says, abounds to his glory–precisely through the the untruth of Israel.

The God who will inflict wrath (cf. ch. 2!) is not unrighteous in his judgment.

The point I wish to make in drawing these passages together is that ch. 3 provides us with a similar argument to that which we find so baffling in ch. 1. It is Israel’s unrighteousness (the ultimate point of 1:18-30 as it bleeds into ch. 2 with “Therefore, you are without excuse”) that demonstrates God’s righteousness, Israel’s faithlessness that enables God’s faithfulness, Israel’s lie that enables God’s truth.

In short, I think that when he said, “For” in 1:18, Paul meant it.

Now, of course, the question is how these things are: how is it that Israel’s faithlessness is actually the means for God’s faithfulness, Israel’s unrighteousness the means for God’s righteousness, Israel’s lie the means for God’s truth?

But that’s a question for another day.

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