The overarching premise behind Rom 1:18–3:20 is that God will not allow creation to indefinitely wallow in corruption or permit Israel to forever languish in the mire of its covenantal curses. The world must be cleansed from evil and the ungodly and disobedient brought to account (Rom 3:6). But judgment is not the only part of the story and Paul opened his letter with the good news of salvation in Christ to Jews and Gentiles (Rom 1:3-4, 16-17). While the gospel announces a day of destruction it also declares a way of salvation (Rom 1:16; 2:16). Thus, to the Gentiles, God demonstrates the severity of his wrath, yet also the abundance of his mercy. Then, to Israel, he shows his impartiality which shames them as much as his fidelity which saves them. In the end, human unrighteousness cannot indefinitely obstruct God’s righteousness, his intent to rectify, redeem, reconcile and restore.
Paul’s centre of gravity is to establish who it is that exists in this plight and needs salvation. While many Jews might see Gentiles and perhaps lawless Jews as needing to come under the wings of Torah and so preserve themselves before God, very few would have considered the Jewish people as a whole in need of an eschatological deliverance wrought by Israel’s promised Messiah. Yet Paul labours the point, quite unexpectedly, that Jews and Gentiles have come to share in the same endemic and adamic problem, remaining captive under the power of sin, and unable to attain a righteousness that avails before God, either by ethics or by election, neither by moral effort nor by clinging to inherited privileges. For sin has leveled the playing field so that Israel’s privileges have amounted only to a priority in judgment (Rom 2:9-10) and now “no difference” remains between Jews and Gentiles under the criterion of divine impartiality (Rom 3:9, 20, 22). Israel’s covenants are ineffective without obedience and Israel has heard the law but not obeyed it (Rom 2:13).
Paul knows of an Israel-shaped salvation that comes in Israel’s Messiah. Paul briefly touches upon the character of salvation in his opening remarks in Rom 1:1-17, and thereafter several features about salvation are implied in Rom 2:1–3:20. What emerges is that the gospel is the means whereby Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians are saved by God, belong to Jesus Christ, and are circumcised in their hearts by the Spirit. All this comes by entering into the divine saving action by faith, so people – all flesh in fact – may become the God-glorifying, Messiah-believing, Spirit-filled new humanity who fulfil the law, render obedience to God, and are justified, attain eternal life, and even receive God’s praise (see esp. Rom 1:5, 6, 16; 2:7, 13, 25-29). The precise manner in which Jews and Gentiles are rescued from God’s contention against sin through faith in Messiah Jesus is unpacked in what follows in Romans 3:21–4:25.