Death Cycle (1–3:20)
Paul begins with three chapters about the reign of sin and the death cycle that it produces. This cycle is put into motion by disordered worship. The mistaken love for ourselves and things of this world leads us to futile thinking and darkened hearts.
And when our hearts and minds are darkened we begin to worship that which should not be worshipped: bodies, sexuality, creatures, and personal identity. As G.K. Chesterton said, “When we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing. We worship anything.” The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness by giving people over to their corrupt desires. His wrath is justified because people are rejecting God and destroying themselves and one another. In some sense, Paul is explaining that division and sin is ultimately a worship issue. If the people in Rome are struggling, it is because they are worshipping the wrong thing.
This text specifically speaks of the cycle of death as leading to malice, envy, strife, and deceit. Sin and disordered worship are not merely personal and internal realities but realities that manifest themselves in destructive behavior. Hatred, strife, and envy are all fruits of the death cycle.
Division, for Paul, is sourced in disordered worship and a misunderstanding of the God of the universe. Most likely, Paul brought up these specific things because he wanted to show Jews and Gentiles the source of their division and how disordered worship caused them to plunge headlong into destruction.
Life Through Death (3:21–11)
Paul’s solution for this cycle of death is found in blood (Rom 3:25). The unorthodox and destructive practices that Paul lists at the beginning of Romans are answered with the death of Christ. Life confronts death here and conquers through resurrection.
The death of the Messiah placated the wrath of God for sins and brought life. The righteousness that both Jews and Gentiles seek after cannot be found in their works, whether that may be good deeds of Gentiles or ceremonial works of Jews. God’s justice is only found in following the one who has life in himself.
The peace that was lacking in the cycle of death is gifted to Jews and Gentiles because now they have peace with God through Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1). Jews and Gentiles are no longer a part of the death cycle but have been transferred to another domain. They have died with Christ in baptism and will be raised to life with him. The old self, enslaved to the death cycle, has been crucified so that we are no longer under the power of sin (Rom 6:6).
The hope that Paul presents is loaded with a theology of the death and resurrection of Christ and the power the Spirit. Jews and Gentiles can walk in newness of life because of the works of Christ. They can do this because of God’s great promises to them and his unending love towards them in Christ (Rom 8).
While Paul began the first section with disordered worship, he closes this section with ordered worship. He speaks of the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Rom 11:33) and praises him for the gifts that God has given.
Now that Jews and Gentiles have heard of the depths of the love and judgments of God, he transitions to speak of how they now can begin to live a new life.