After the transition of verses 16-17, we enter the first major section of the book of Romans with verse 18. This first main section of the book extends from 1:18 – 3:20, and it contains three subsections. In our passage Paul is describing the sinfulness of the Gentiles. In the next passage, 2:1 – 3:8, Paul describes the sinfulness of the Jews, and finally in 3:9-20 he describes the utter futility of finding salvation in the Law. Bearing in mind that Romans is a persuasive piece, you can easily see the case Paul is building here, and at the same time, we can see that by breaking this argument into subsections as he has done, he avoids either Gentile or Jewish Christians asserting, as they liked to do, that one group of Christians is somehow superior to the other.
If you read this passage, as I hope you already have done, I cannot honestly imagine anyone doing so without feeling a little convicted at least once, for what Paul describes is the world we are living in. Over the centuries it has been popular in many circles to use the occasion of this text to preach hellfire and damnation, but in so doing, those good brothers of ours have taken it quite out of its context, for we have already discovered that Romans isn’t about hell; it’s about Jesus. I’ve also been careful to point out that this is a subsection in the first section of a persuasive piece, which means that it is being used to make one point which will be combined with other points to demonstrate something larger; it doesn’t just stand on its own.
Having said that, I also want to be clear that I’m not interested in anyone’s attempt to explain away anything Paul has mentioned in this passage, as so many on the opposite extreme seek to do these days. Neither of these approaches is valid, at least in my view.
I seriously doubt that you need me to explain much about this passage; it is entirely obvious what Paul is taking about. People will make their decisions to reject God and go their own ways; they will ignore what is in front of their faces to deny Him. They will concoct the most flimsy nonsense to explain Him away so they can do what they want to do; they have even invented things like political correctness to silence any opposition to their folly, and even some Christians will allow themselves to be fooled: Amazing! At some point God will simply step back and let them go, but there will be a day of reckoning.
The point Paul is leading up is that the Law can do nothing to end this cycle of rebellion and folly.