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.

15 thoughts on “Righteous Because of Wrath?”

  1. Daniel,

    This makes me think of the Lukan Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 where in v. 30 there is the announcement that God is no longer “overlooking” the ignorant behaviors of the Gentiles. It would seem that for Paul this message of judgment is also a message of grace because prior to the spread of the gospel God had let the Gentiles wallow in their rebellion, but now mercifully a warning was coming.

    Maybe for Paul it is the reality that God’s judgment has been activated upon Israel and the world that it is also God’s mercy because the gospel of life for those whose are faithful goes to those who before were ignored because they were not part of the “commonwealth of Israel”?

    Anyways, I’m just trying to think along with you here. I greatly appreciated your book on Romans and I intend to re-read it soon. Thanks for blogging about it.

    1. Along the lines of what Brian is saying, I wonder if our contemporary ideas about the word “wrath” has a strong tendency to invoke a different meaning than what Paul and his ancient company had in mind when the word “wrath” was used. In other words, I am not sure Paul was advocating a balkanized theology of annihilationism..

      So, if God’s righteousness is dependent upon his wrath, as the argumentation goes, then what is the nature of “wrath?”

      Wrath seems to imply judgment, and biblically speaking, while God did send the sword against Israel and Judah, it was always in service of putting things to right: or, judgment comes prepackaged with hope, uprooting in order to rebuild. Though, of course, there will be blood.

      What is the greek for “wrath,” and does it paradoxically coincide with grace, as Brian has pointed out?

      1. There’s a good bit on wrath in Romans. Often it’s pointing to a coming, future day, though Rom 1 indicates that this eschatological reality has begun already to be put on display in the present.

        1. So, wrath employs the already there/not yet paradox.

          But does wrath have the last word? While God is deemed righteous through the judgment of His people’s faithlessness, does that contrast describe the fundamental glory of God; or is it a necessary step toward a better glory? In other words, must there be the judgement and wrath of some group of people in order to deem God righteous?

          Romans 15 ends with not an iota of wrath. Paul even expresses that via Christ we are “full of goodness” (v. 14). And if every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, then is this not the other side of the judgement coin?

  2. Daniel, does it have anything to do with his fuller argument in chapters 9-11, where Paul seems to be saying that Israel’s transgression has led to the world’s salvation?

  3. Daniel, FWIW, I connect Paul’s progression here to similar progressions that are evident in Psalms, the liturgy of the Jews. For instance, Psalms 15 and 24, are entrance psalms for worship at the temple, and Psalm 14 which is linguistically linked (IIRC) to Psalm 15, and 24:4b describe who may or may not enter the temple. Paul seems to me to have done in his epistle what the Psalms did for the Jews: delineate what behavior and attitude constitute false worship and right worship. Whereas the Psalms slice between the Jews and the Gentiles, Paul in Romans slices the sword of Israel’s own liturgy down through their own community. (thus, leading into ch. 2 where his language builds to vv. 17-24.)

    The bookends of 1:5 and 16:26, “to bring about the obedience of faith” seem to reflect the message of right worship & faithfulness being behaviorally evidenced in Psalms, too. I also wonder about why translators of Romans insist on using “wrath of God” for “wrath”. ISTM that Paul describes wrath as already being enacted in evil; it’s present in the acts of those who’ve abandoned right worship for evil-doing, “eat[ing] up [God's] people as they eat bread.” (Ps. 14:4)

    I.e., when we fail to act in faith toward God, we worship emptiness or in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15). One Greek word in 1 Cor. 15 is one of those used as LXX replacement terms for naming idols. (I think it’s makarios. I’d pull it up to be sure, but it’s already midnight here!)

    If I’m calling my exegesis of v.18 aright, “against” is the translation of kata — but it also could be translated as a preposition indicating location. To wit, could Paul be emphasizing that the wrath is already revealed (by the truth from heaven, vv. 1-5, “the righteousness of God from faith to faith”) by the false worshiping actions that succeed v.18? That would fit the continuity of the message in the Psalms which Paul was steeped in.

    “God is with the company of the righteous” (Ps. 14:5) // to Romans 2:29 ?

  4. I don’t actually find the ‘for’ difficult. It seems to me to be saying that God’s wrath is on all sin, implying nobody can be saved. Yet God does save, so how can he be righteous. Because of the gospel of Christ’s death for sin. I do find the idea that ‘Israel’s transgression has led to the world’s salvation?’ difficult – so I don’t go for that!

  5. A thought just striking me. What if ‘Israel’s transgression has led to the world’s salvation?’ were taken as saying that if Israel had not transgressed that would be equivalent to Israel’s way being the way of salvation, hence the gentiles would be excluded. But since Israel’s transgression shows they did not exclusively have the way of salvation, it means salvation is open to everybody.

    That would be a whole lot different than taking it as saying Israel’s transgression was instrumental in the gentiles’ salvation. That just would not seem right.

      1. I’ll try to say again what I was hoping to have already said in the first post! I was wanting to say the ‘FOR’ (or because) at issue fits like this: I’m not ashamed of the gospel for (because) it brings salvation, for (because) God is shown to be righteous in saving through faith, FOR (because) the wrath of God is on all sin – and Jesus has dealt with that wrath so God is shown to be righteous in not being wrathful, or else God would be unrighteous in saving.

        Re my second post. It seems to me Romans 11 is often (almost always?) taken as not saying what I wrote. I think it is taken as saying the Jews are opposing the gospel, and this has given (merely) an opportunity to preach it to the gentiles. (Then, this was set up by God so that the Jews would be jealous that gentiles were being accepted by God and some Jews would then want to be in on the same thing.)

        ‘Their failure to accept Jesus as God’s salvation allows the Gentiles to be saved.’ is not sufficient. It implies that if the Jews had accepted Jesus the gentiles would not be saved. Whereas, the situation is that Jews were never at any time able to be saved by being Jews, and gentiles (and Jews) always were able to be saved by faith.

        1. I hear what you’re saying, and that’s probably how most NT writers would take it.

          But Paul is fairly adamant that there’s something about Israel’s inclusion within sinful humanity, by their rejection of the gospel, that enables the Gentiles to come to faith. And, conversely, it’s Gentile inclusion that will turn around to Jewish restoration. There’s a causality at work here in Rom 11, even if we wouldn’t quite want to put it that way ourselves. Put differently, whether or not Gentiles would have come in anyway is beside the point, because Paul is wrestling with why they have, side-by-side with why Israel hasn’t (by and large).

  6. Maybe I need to do a bit more work yet, there are extreme statements in the blog:

    ‘the wrath of God revealed from heaven is the grounds for the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith’, ‘how is it that Israel’s faithlessness is actually the means for God’s faithfulness’.

    I don’t think the ‘for’ can be taken in context as implying ‘grounds’ or means’. I think here the overall point being made is ‘because OTHERWISE God would have to be wrathful to be righteous’. And that Israel’s faithlessness DEMONSTRATES THE NEED for God’s faithful action in Christ.

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