Paul speaks with two voices it seems in Romans. More correctly, there is a non-Pauline voice in the first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This voice mixes with Paul’s in ways difficult for the reader to detect. That’s because “epistles” (letters written with formal style and often meant to be read publicly) were to be read aloud by someone who knew the author’s intent. Douglas Campbell explains the ancient art of delivering a letter orally and how tone and emphasis made up for the ambiguity of words on a page (pg 531ff in The Deliverance of God).
Put simply, Paul is debating with an unseen opponent in Romans 1-4. Many of the words and phrases in it are not what Paul thinks at all. They are arguments coming from a certain Jewish philosophy about Jews and Gentiles, the law and righteousness. You can find a similar philosophy in two works of Second Temple Jewish literature that found their way into the Apocrypha: the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon.
Just because a viewpoint is Jewish does not mean it represent what Jews think about the matter. Paul is also a Jew. As a matter of fact, Paul’s particular understanding of Torah, Messiah, the revealing of God’s intervening acts in history, and so on, is rather progressive and broadminded. Paul’s view attributes value to the human soul, interprets God’s motives as benevolent, and assumes that the meaning behind it all is promise and redemption for everyone.
You don’t get that when you read Romans 1-4. You hear about “wrath revealed from heaven.” God’s motive seems to be jealousy, anger, vengeance. He is peeved about human unrighteousness. So he gives people up to the lusts of their heart, says this voice in Paul (in 1:24). Readers have debated exactly what this means, that God “gave them up.” It sounds like abandonment. God could have intervened in some manner, publicly in history or privately to individual souls, to stir humanity toward the good. Instead he abandoned us to a downward spiral of depravity, mass killing, and cruelty.
Reading Romans 1-4 can be quite depressing. Romans 1 condemns homosexuality for example. It becomes difficult for a gay person to think the Bible could be their book. Homosexuality is called shameless, deserving the due penalty for its grievous error.
So the bad things God has in mind for humanity are exactly what we deserve, this voice in Romans tells us. The good things are reserved for the good people.
Ironically, the Christian gospel is allegedly about human beings having an inability to save themselves and receiving undeserved kindness from God. Yet the thrust of Romans 1-4 is that people who deserve good things get them, either by being righteous or possessing faith.
In some verses that Christian readers generally need to explain away as not meaning what they say, we read that “he will render to each one according to his works” (2:6). Those who seek good save themselves and find eternal life. Those who are bad find wrath and fury. God saves good people and damns bad ones, says Romans 2:6-11. Commentaries bend over backwards to justify these words under the mistaken assumption they are Paul’s thoughts on the matter.
Which is it? Are human beings loved by God and recipients of undeserved kindness? Or is the truth that good people get good things from God and bad people get bad things?
Even in Romans 1-4 itself many statements do not square with this Gospel of Good Reward.
Then, if our eyes are not too glazed over, we come to Romans 5-8 and find a fresh wind blowing through the soul. The faithfulness of Messiah made us right with God. God’s goodness brings good things to people, not our own goodness. Hope does not disappoint because behind all the cruel realities of this present world, God is good. His intent is benevolent. He will restore value to us and cause beauty to come from the darkness.
Romans 1-4 speaks with two voices. Romans 5-8 is Paul’s voice alone. To see the difference between the two sections is the beginning of wisdom.