It’s really hard to read this passage without reading into it all the things that I knoht w Paul says. Romans (interpreted by many great past teachers) is so much a foundation for so much theology that it’s hard to read it as if for the first time. But I’m giving it a go!
As a slight digression – in looking at Paul’s letters, I’m reading them as from Paul. I know that authorship of several is debated, but I’m reading them as the texts before us, and allowing for development and change in Paul’s thinking over the years between first (1 Thessalonians?) and last (Timothy & Titus?). I’m reading these, and the other letters of the New Testament, as being even more sharply related to context than the gospels – as letters written in response to particular issues which aren’t always as obvious to us as we’d like.
With that said, how does Paul seem to be starting his letter to Roman Christians?
By pointing out that we’re all in a mess, and we all need God’s help to get out of that mess. So there’s no place for one group of Christians to look down on another, whether it’s over Jew-Gentile differences or over the particular expressions of sin by which they have demonstrated their rebellion against God.
Much of recent discussion of ch.1 has focussed on the meaning of the sexual sins in vv 24-27, as if these could be neatly defined and then condemned with particular vigour. But (a) Paul seems to regard these as stages on the way to the capital-crime sins of coventousness, gossip, boasting and being rebellious towards parents. and in any case (b) the whole point of his argument seems to be that we’re all in need of God’s forgiveness, so separating out some sins as particularly serious seems a bit of a waste of effort.
When Paul comes on to talk of judgment and vindication, it does read as though he’s taking a view we wouldn’t normally call ‘Pauline’. He recognises the place of natural revelation (and its limitations) in making truth known to the nations – and recognises in 2:14-16 at least a theoretical possibility that this knowledge will bring people to a ‘not guilty’ verdict on the day of Judgement. In that day itself, judgement here seems to be on the basis of works – 2:9-10. I know that this won’t match other things that we find in Paul, but it’s hard to read this passage in any other way.
Paul’s criticism here isn’t so much of salvation by works as salvation by knowledge of the Law. While he affirms the value of Jewish identity and knowledge of God’s will (3:1-2) he seems to portray that knowledge and identity as powerless to change the basic human nature shared by Jew and Gentile, a nature which rebels against God and falls short of his standards.
No comparisons of one to another.
We need God’s help. That’s the problem Paul has set out at the start of his letter, and I’m not sure that he’s dealing with many other issues in this passage.