1:18 Paul shifts to talk about what necessitates the gospel—God’s wrath. God’s wrath is revealed from heaven, meaning he’s not hiding it. His wrath is his righteous and just retribution against sin. He does not apologize for his righteous anger, like we often try to do. Rather, he publishes it for all to see. Sinful human beings, conversely, would rather suppress the truth. Suppress means “to hold down.” It’s like holding a beach ball under water. The beach ball resists that and wants to pop back up; so if you want to keep the ball under, you have to suppress it, to force it down. That’s what we do with the truth about God’s righteousness: we humans tend to force it down because we don’t want to deal with it.
You can know a person or a culture has descended into ultimate corruption when people give public and legal approval to sin. Paul lists twenty-four ways godlessness leads to madness. This is a catalogue of societal breakdown, filled with greed, murder, and deceit (1:29). We look around at our culture and say, “How did things get so crazy?” Paul answers: as a society, you asked to be free from God. This is what you get.
2:1-3 At this point in Paul’s argument, his Jewish listeners would be nodding their heads in agreement: “Get those pagans, Paul!” We may likewise be tempted to cheer Paul on, thinking that he is talking about someone else. Certainly we are not godless and immoral like other people out there. But Paul turns the tables, showing the impartiality of God when it comes to judgment. The moralistic Jews were practicing the same things for which they judged others. Paul’s response? When you judge another, you condemn yourself (2:1). God’s judgment is not based on our self-evaluation of our morals, but is based on the truth (2:2). It is complete foolishness to pass judgment on others for what you are doing and to think that you will escape God’s judgment (2:3).
2:4-5 The Jews, you see, had made the same mistake we often do: they mistook God’s patience for his absence. They assumed that if God had not judged them yet, he would not judge at all. But Paul says that God’s kindness is intended to lead . . . to repentance (2:4). He waits to pour out his wrath—not because his wrath is a myth, but because he knows that once it begins, there is no reprieve. Those who do not repent are storing up wrath for themselves (2:5). This should encourage us when people seem to get away with evil. Their account is enlarging, and the bill will come due in eternity. We should never envy the wicked because all they are accumulating is a greater degree of divine judgment.
2:6-8 God will repay each one according to his works (2:6), not for salvation, but to address the level of wrath and anger (2:8) and affliction and distress his works have earned (2:9)—or, for those who persevere in doing good, for the level of glory, honor, and immortality (2:7). Paul’s point here is not that we can be saved by works (the rest of Romans makes that obvious), but that God is an impartial Judge. He does not reward people based on their ethnic background. He looks at each individual specifically.
2:9-11 Lest Paul’s Jewish readers miss his point, he makes it clear: salvation can come to the Jew, and also to the Greek (2:9-10). But so can judgment. After all, there is no favoritism with God (2:11). As he says in the next chapter, all have sinned and all are justified by God’s grace (3:23-24).