Romans 1:18-32 is often understood as Paul’s indictment of the Gentiles, with Rom 2:1-3:20 addressing the Jews. This is certainly correct since those in Rom 1:18-32 have limited revelation and pursue behaviours that Gentiles often embraced but Jews rejected. While, Romans 2-3:20 addresses those under the law, circumcision, etc.
This much is clear, but surprisingly in the climax of Romans 1:18-32 – where Paul asserts that the Gentiles have rejected God’s revelation – he actually alludes to an OT passage about Israel’s sin! Why, in the condemnation of the Gentiles, does Paul refer to the sins of the Jews? I think one way to help resolve this question is through seeing that Paul also alludes to Adam in Romans 1. Let’s see the allusions first and then I’ll explain:
Israel in Rom 1:18-32
22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
— Romans 1:22-25
The reference to Israel is found in v23’s allusion of Psalm 106:20:
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
— Psalm 106:20
Adam in Rom 1:18-32
The reference to Adam is a little less obvious, but I think it is there.
- Paul’s starting point for Gentile sinfulness is creation: “ever since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20)
- The list of animals in Rom 1:23 and Genesis 1 are closely similar (e.g. Gen 1:24-25). Could this be merely accidental?
- Exchanging the “truth for a lie” and “serv[ing] the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25) can be seen as references to Satan’s deception of Adam and Eve.
What does this mean?
So what do these references mean? Why use them in a condemnation of the Gentiles? I think the answer is found in recognizing that Scripture presents both Adam and Israel as representatives of humanity. Adam is obvious, and is even found in the context in Romans (5:11-21), but Israel can be seen as a representative of humanity when we realize that God chose Abraham and his offspring to be God’s true humanity through whom He would bless the world (ultimately in Christ). Israel is treated almost as a ‘new’ Adam, new representatives of humanity placed in God’s land and in relationship with Him, with His presence dwelling amongst them in the temple. But what did Israel, God’s new humanity, do? Soon after their “creation” (exodus from Egypt) the people of Israel created the golden calf and committed idolatry.
So in Rom 1:18-32 Paul is not just looking around himself at the pagans and listing individual sins of individual Gentiles. Rather, he is describing the collective sins of humanity, which culminates in his final blow in merging the stories of Adam and Israel in Rom 1:22-25.
Mankind has failed to represent God rightly. What we need is a faithful second Adam: Jesus!