The Book of Romans is one of the most analyzed books of the New Testament. It has much material that is central to Christian teaching, so one’s interpretation of this book has much bearing on what Christianity means for that person.
So, let’s start with Romans 1.
Verses 5-7: “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.”
These passages appear to establish the epistle as one written to a Christian audience. However, later in Chapter 1 Paul describes people who do not appear to be Christians.
Verses 18-23, 28-32: “Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip.”
In this passage Paul seems to single out people who worship idols or nature. What is noticeable when reading the Bible is that in the ancient world, Christians and Jews viewed pagans as participating in an immoral culture that separated them from the Scripture-based religious community. However, if we look at the world today, we may find non-Christians who don’t seem to have the evil characteristics described above. Basically, I think in the ancient world, pagans were viewed by Christians the same way that Hollywood is viewed by conservative American Christians today. Preachers speak of such people as a group, focusing on some characteristics prevalent in their lifestyles from a top-down view. They may paraphrase the passage above when talking about Hollywood and swap the word “idols” with “money” or “self-glorification” and then list all those sins at the end. But, that doesn’t mean that every individual movie star must be evil. I think in Romans 1, Paul was making top-down observations of the pagan culture in his day, and he saw a lot of immoral behavior and attitudes which he wrote about. However, that doesn’t mean that every non-Christian in the world must be evil.
Moving on to Romans 2, Paul criticizes the “churchgoers” of his day for casting judgment on the “worldly” people around them, but not actually practicing what they preach. Paul references “Jews” and “Greeks” a lot. I think that in Paul’s writing, the modern equivalent of “Jews” are those associated with Christianity, and “Greeks/Gentiles” are everybody else you meet today. In the first century, Christianity was viewed more like an interpretation of Judaism, rather than a separate religion as is perceived today.
What Paul writes in Romans 2 is that, regardless of whether someone is associated with the Church or not, if the person does not live according to Biblical commandments, he or she will be judged no differently than someone who doesn’t claim adherence to the faith. Also, notice what Paul writes in verses 10-15:
“There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.”
In essence, I think this is saying that Gentiles (or today, those outside the Christian religion) can be rewarded when judged if they sought to live according to their conscience, which by nature has God’s law written on it.
So, the message of Romans 2 is clearly judgment based on works regardless of what you believe or what religion you associate with. Now, here’s the thing. When we move on to Chapters 3-8, Paul writes some things that seem to contradict everything he said in the first two chapters. There have been many attempts by theologians to make sense of the contrasts. You may wonder why I am bothering to try to address the matter myself. I’ve asked myself that as well, However, I have come to realize that my personal beliefs on this dilemma are connected to central elements of my faith, so addressing these issues is a part of evangelism rather than an attempt to wade into controversy.