Before jumping in to the heart of Romans 1, I’d like to point out two quick things found in verse 5:
Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.
The first is that Paul says that he received apostleship from Christ. That means he’s not just speaking to the Christians in Rome as a fellow believer. He’s speaking to them as one who has authority. The rest of what he says is not merely his opinion, it’s authoritative for the believers. The second thing I noticed in the verse was the phrase “the obedience that comes from faith.” People like to set the Book of Romans up against the Book of James as if they contradict one another. But right from one of the very first verses Paul affirms obedience and faith and then clarifies how the two books work together. Obedience comes from faith. Faith produces our obedience rather than our obedience producing our faith. Sometimes to help myself from getting confused by the word “faith,” I substitute it with “active trust.” In this instance, the verse would read “the obedience that comes from active trust”. The first eleven chapters of Romans are Paul’s exploration and explanation of what the good news of Jesus is all about. In verse 18 he jumps right in by explaining the problem confronting the world.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
What’s interesting is that God’s wrath is not just waiting to be revealed in the afterlife, it’s currently being revealed. In verses 24 and 26 Paul explains that in dealing with the wicked “God gave them over” to their own desires. They are living with the consequences of their own wickedness as we speak and it’s gotten so bad that they glory in it, approve of others doing the same and “invent ways of doing evil.” A former pastor of mine used to teach “When you get caught in your sin; when your affair is discovered or your addiction is exposed, that’s not God’s wrath coming down on you. That’s God’s grace. If God were truly done with you, he’d give you over to your sin. He’d wash his hands of you and let you dive into it deeper.” If you feel convicted about your sin, be thankful, it’s because the Holy Spirit is still wrestling with you; you haven’t yet been given over to your sin or to God’s wrath. The wages of all of this; of denying God’s truth and failing to give him glory and gratitude, is being turned over to lies and wickedness and then eventually, death. There’s one other take away I’d like to offer from this passage. Evangelicals are often asked “What about the people who have never heard of Jesus? How can they get to Heaven?” It seems that Paul, right from the very start, knew this was something Christian theology would be confronted with. He explains that:
. . . since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Later in chapter 2, he says:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
Though many Christians stumble over an answer to this question, the answer is right here. God’s invisible qualities have been revealed from the beginning. Those with the Law will perish under it; those without the law with perish with the law that is written on their own hearts. Their own hearts will serve as a witness for or against themselves. I understand Joseph Smith’s concern for his brother Alvin, who died before Smith could re-establish the one true church. But these verses help us know that Alvin would only be accountable for what he knew, and what he did with what he knew was enough to judge him by.