Most theological anthropologies work with a basic, implicit assumption: that there are either two categories of people. Firstly, there are people known as sinners. Then, there are also the saints. While the category of sinners is inhabited by people who actually commit sins, the category of the saints can be variously understood between theological anthropologies as forensic, in terms of being regarded as a saint without concern for one’s behaviors in virtue of faith, or as a saint in terms of holy behaviors in one’s life. While any serious acceptance of sanctification in Paul’s letters would necessitate saints are such in virtue of saintly behavior, there exists a problem with theological anthropologies that embrace a qualitative, behavioral difference between sinners and saints. They set up a dualistic anthropology in which people are placed into the binary of one of two opposing categories. This leads to either one of two logical conclusions. Either (a) if one is not a saint, then one is a sinner or (b) one can be simultaneously a saint and a sinner (Luther’s simul justus et peccator).
While such a theological anthropology has a very powerful, persuasive appeal to many Christians as we as humans have a marked preference for parsimonious yet all-encompassing explanations, there is a problem; Paul’s letter to the Romans doesn’t readily fit into a binary system of categorizing people according to their ethical behaviors. On the one hand, Paul does draw a clear contrast between sin and righteousness, such as in Romans 3.20-21. Yet, on the other hand, it is by no means clear that Paul categorizes humans as being either “sinner” or “righteous.” In fact, Paul’s discourse in Romans seems to imply that there are multiple categories that people may be understood with reference to ethical and moral behavior.
Case in point, the example of the Gentile who has no Torah but does the things of the Torah in Romans 2.14-15 highlights the possibility that there are people who exist in between sinner and saint in Paul’s mind. Nothing suggests that this Gentile Paul describes is a Christian believer, because his thoughts alternate between accusing and defending him, whereas a person who has been justified by faith is someone who has a hope that allows them to stand with a confidence boast in God (Romans 5.1-11). This alternation indicates that this Gentile is neither simply a “sinner” nor blameless by being joined to Christ. Thus, it is not appropriate to describe him as the wicked are described in Romans 1.29-32. Paul implies that such a person may stand at God’s judgment as they do the things of the Torah, and thus would not be accurately described as a person who does not obey the truth that God brings wrath upon (Rom. 2.8). What is have in the example of Romans 2.14-15 is an example of a person who jams up any dualistic separating of the world into the righteous and the wicked.
I would put forward that Paul has in mind two different types of sinners. On the one hand, there are those people as described in Romans 1.18-32 whose lives stray in the very opposite direction of God. Such people are fit to be brought to death by God’s judgment because, as Paul describes in Romans 2.8, they are self-seeking and obey principles of wickedness other than the truth that God provides. Most likely, Paul is alluding to a characterization of the ungodly in Wisdom of Solomon 2:6-11:
Come, therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and let us use the creatures hastily as in youth.
Let us be satiated with expensive wine and perfumes,
and let no blossom of air pass us by;
let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wilt.
Let none of us be without a share of our revelry;
let us leave everywhere signs of merriment,
because this is our portion and this is our lot.
Let us oppress a poor righteous person;
let us not spare a widow
or respect the ancient grey hairs of an old man;
but let our strength be the law of righteousness,
for what is weak shows itself to be useless.
Wisdom here characterizes the ungodly as engaging in a self-seeking form of reasoning that leads them to a “might makes right” ethical reasoning, the opposite of what God’s Torah commands. They rationalize a false sense of righteousness that makes them reject the truth that the Torah speaks to and instead replace the truth with a wicked form of reasoning.
In contrast to this, there is another type of figure in Romans: those who seek to obey God’s Torah, whether in the actual letter of the Torah or an implicit knowledge of the things of the Torah, but yet are not able to live in full integrity according to it. We have the aforementioned Gentile whose conscience alternates between accusation and defense. Then, we find in Romans 7.14-25 a Torah-observant Jew that is unable to stop doing the things that the Torah forbids. Nothing in Paul’s discourse suggests this figure is totally unable to ever do anything good at any point of time, as if they are entirely incapable of doing good, but rather Paul is impersonating someone who recognizes their moral weakness that leads them to do the very things they know they should not do. The language Paul uses to describe him is suggesting of a person who is enslaved against their will, a metaphor Paul uses in Romans 6, by having been taken captive by sin that inhabits the body (Rom. 7.23).
This highlights the fact that for Paul there are “sinners” of two types. The weak (cf. Rom 5.6) who find themselves enslaved to sin and unable to obey God and those who actively obey principles of wickedness. Of course, Paul does not distinguish between them in terms of being able to receive God’s grace, as even the ungodly can come to be justified by God (Rom 4.6) The importance of the distinction, however, is in terms of judgment. Paul says only the self-serving who obey wickedness will face God’s wrath. Meanwhile, while the one who is justified by faith will have confidence in sharing in God’s glory, the Gentile of Romans 2 who does the things of the Torah may be uncertain about themselves but they can yet be justified *at the eschatological judgment,* standing somewhere in uncertain limbo beforehand.
There are at least four implications when we connect Paul’s moral anthropology that distinguishes between these two types of “sinners” with his description of the apocalyptic judgment. First, there will be people who do not believe in Jesus who will stand as God’s judgment. Their lives will be of such a mixed character that their consciences may alternate between accusation and defense, but God is not going to cast out those who sought to do what is good, even if they were incapable of really giving their lives over to God’s instruction. Secondly, the benefit of following God in faith is that one can have a boast and confidence in God and share in the glory that is to be given. Third, God’s wrath is directed towards those whose lives are lived in diametric opposition to the truth of God, who explicitly live by different law and principles, not those who simply don’t live up to God’s glory. Finally, a great place for liminality is needed in our theological anthropologist that recognizes that that unbelievers as a lot should not be sweepingly labeled according to some broad base theory of human sin such as “total depravity” that focuses on describing the human sinful nature, as if there was a single essence or nature to people and their relation to sin,