Chapter one begins with Paul’s traditional greeting with his name (Romans 1:1), the recipients (Romans 1:7), and a prayer of thanksgiving (Romans 1:8). However, it is also very untraditional in that he took five verses to set the tone for the letter, specifically the foundation for his gospel message and his authority as an apostle (Romans 1:2-6). This, he wrote, was solely through the resurrection of Christ, at which point he was appointed by God to be “the Son-of-God-in-power,” having accomplished everything necessary to fulfill the role “he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures.”
In Romans 1:8-15 Paul revealed his long-time desire to visit the Roman believers. As the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Galatians 2:9), he desperately wanted to visit them to “impart to [them] some spiritual gift” and to “be mutually comforted by one another’s faith,” but he was always stopped (Romans 1:13; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:18).
The crux of the chapter, even the book, is established in Romans 1:16-17. Because Paul so badly wanted to “preach the gospel to” the Romans, but was unable to do so, he did the next best thing – wrote this letter all about the gospel. No matter where it led him or what he faced because of it, Paul would never be ashamed of this gospel, because it alone “is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is this gospel which reveals once and for all “the righteousness of God” that brings true life.
The final section of this first chapter (Romans 1:18-32) explains the position of the pagan world in relation to God’s righteousness, namely, that they “suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,” thereby bringing “the wrath of God…against all [their] ungodliness and unrighteousness.” The specific ways a Gentile person, tribe, or nation may suppress God’s truth is numerous, but they all follow the same general patterns, often beginning a downward spiral away from him. First, they reject what they know to be true about him – he is eternal and transcendent – by shaping him into the likeness of physical beings, minimizing his full glory. Next, they reject him altogether and begin to worship “the creation rather than the Creator.” Finally, they begin to worship themselves, man become god, leaving nothing to the imagination and fulfilling any wicked desire that fills their sinful hearts. As a result, if they do not repent and return to him, there is a point of “no return” at which God will “give them over to [their] dishonorable passions… [and] to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.” At this stage, they become like Israel in the days of the judges where each “generation would act more wickedly than the previous one” and “each man did what he considered to be right” (Judges 2:19; 21:25). This is the default state of the world without God, not only doing evil “but also approv[ing] of those who practice” it.