In chapter 1, Paul leaves us with bad news. He speaks to the Man without the Bible and proves that he is under the wrath of God because he suppresses the truth. God is obvious yet sinful man ignores him. He does what he wants to do, even if it violates what he knows to be true. Furthermore, others not only partake of the same things but also give approval to these sinful acts.
In chapter 2, Paul continues speaking about the wrath of God, but this time he speaks to the man with the Bible. It is not only the Gentiles who have a problem with God. The Jews do as well. Whereas in chapter 1 Paul condemns those who do and approve sin, in chapter 2 he condemns those who do and condemn sin. Chapter 1 confronts the liberal relativists (no rules, no law to obey), while Chapter 2 confronts the conservative hypocrites (lots of rules, law unobeyed).
Here in Chapter 2, Paul makes his argument as a diatribe (a rhetorical speech against an imaginary opponent), conversing with a hypothetical man and responding to his questions and objections. Michael Bird summarizes the message this way, “There is no superiority for the Jewish opponent by presiding in judgment (vv. 1-11), possessing the Torah (vv. 12-16), privileged ethnicity (vv. 17-24), or partaking of circumcision (vv. 25-29) …Paul’s point is that the Jews have no right to boast over their pagan neighbors because, while God is faithful to Israel, he is also impartial in his judgment against Israel. So, in the end, Gentiles and Jews both stand before God ‘without excuse’ on account of their sin.”
Because Paul uses an imaginary man to converse with, I will use the generalized “he” throughout. It is for you to decide if your name should replace him.
1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
Let’s pretend our friend – Paul’s imaginary opponent - read chapter 1 and concluded, “Whew, I’m glad I’m not like those guys!” Paul has some bad news for him. He doesn’t have an excuse, either. Everyone who judges condemns himself because the judge does the same things. Francis Schaeffer illustrates this.
It is as if each of us were born with a small tape recorder around our neck, and that tape recorder records all our moral judgments against others – “he is wrong…she is wrong…he is wrong” – throughout our whole life. Then, at the final judgment, God simply plays the tape back and we hear in our own voice the moral judgments we have made and God asks, “Have you kept those standards yourself?” Obviously, we would all have to answer no. There have been ample occasions in each of our lives when we have deliberately chosen to do something we knew to be wrong. Even if God erased from the tape all the situations where we could offer a logical excuse for our actions, He would still be justified in judging us for the times we have deliberately done wrong.”
In Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he says, “O sinner, can you give any reason why since you have risen from your bed this morning God has not stricken you dead?” The hard-hearted man is spurning God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience. Instead of storing up treasures in heaven, he stores up wrath from God. For him, it will be life sentence upon life sentence apart from the Lord that he must endure, unless he repents.
The most loving thing God can do for this man is to bring him to repentance. That means he must be humbled. We are so much worse than we ever imagined we could be. To see ourselves in God’s light can be a liberating experience. He shows us ourselves (though not all of ourselves) so that we can see how much we need him. If God sets his heart to save us, his revelation may hurt, but it won’t damn. It will save. It is his kindness. Whereas this man looks down in judgment upon those he thinks he’s better than, God, who is truly better than, looks down in kindness on this man. That should lead him to repentance.
6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.
God will hold the world to account – all of it. He will render each one according to his works. Michael Bird helps us see this argument using a behavior/result diagram.
|v. 7||Behavior||To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality||Positive|
|Result||He will give eternal life|
|v. 8||Behavior||But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil,||Negative|
|Result||There will be wrath and anger|
|v. 9||Result||There will be trouble and distress for every human being||Negative|
|Behavior||Who does evil;|
|Persons||First for the Jew, then for the Gentile|
|v. 10||Result||But glory, honor and peace||Positive|
|Behavior||For everyone who does good|
|Persons||First for the Jew, then for the Gentile|
Bird goes on to say, “Paul is saying that those who do good and seek God will be rewarded in due course with a spate of benefits including immortality and divine honors. In contrast, Paul says, those who do evil and reject the truth will, in turn, receive a mix of human misfortune and divine rage.”
R.C. Sproul says, “No matter how many groups we are members of, there is one thing we must keep before our eyes constantly: in the final analysis, when we stand before Almighty God, we stand alone. I cannot appeal to the righteousness of my father, or to the righteousness of my mother, or to the righteousness of my sister, or to the greatness of the church to which I belong. I have to answer for my life by myself before the throne of God.”
Paul’s imaginary opponent may be resting in his lineage. After all, he was born into the right kind of family, a Jewish one. His Mama raised him right, and he would never do the things those other people do. But is he righteous just because he was born at the right time, into the right family, with the right upbringing? Even the Jews will stand before God in judgment for their works, and has he really obeyed the law? Paul is making a startling claim. It’s one that Jesus made to the Jewish leaders as well, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). Having the Bible doesn’t matter unless we know the person behind the Bible. Following the rules – even God’s rules – will not gain us righteousness if we leave God behind. Loving God that makes the rules matter. And as we love God, our heart goes from judging others to pleading with others to be reconciled to him.
In Romans 2, the Jew, the Man with the Bible, stands alongside the Gentile, the Man without the Bible. Both stand guilty before God. The question is, what will he do about it? Any attempt at gaining righteousness apart from Jesus Christ will only condemn him. He may think he knows what’s best for the world, but has he listened to what God says is best? Has he ignored God for the advantage of feeling better about himself? Furthermore, is he willing to repent?
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
All with the law + all without the law = universal sin. Gentiles obey the law even though they’ve never heard the law. Jews disobey the law even though they’ve heard the law. It is not the hearers but the doers that are justified by the law. The problem is no one obeys all the time. Therefore, no one is justified by the law.
Martin Luther said, “The Law gives occasion to sin unless there is the assistance of divine grace, and the heart, mind and will are divinely directed toward keeping the law. The human will by nature always goes against the law; it would rather do the opposite of its demands, if only it could, even if outwardly man does what the law commands. Wherever the law prevails, man is moved by it to sin more than he is moved to fulfill it.”
Paul’s opponent must be careful. He is not just in his judgment because he will be judged under God’s law. People may fail his subjective standard, but he fails God’s objective standard. He has heard the law his whole life – after all, he was brought up among the people of God – but has he obeyed the law with his whole life?
Francis Schaeffer tells a story of when he was a pastor visiting homes. “I would always read the Bible before I left, and would ask, ‘Do you have a Bible?’ Often, they would reply, ‘Yes, we have a Bible,’ and they would start trying to find it. They would look all over their bookshelf and reach around behind it. If there had been a snake hiding there it would have bitten them! Yes, they had a Bible – to record their children’s names and press flowers in. But why bother? If they never even read their Bible, why not record their children’s names in some other book! There’s nothing magic in just owning a Bible if you don’t believe and obey it.”
Tim Keller shows us what the Jews of Paul’s day were proud of. “All this boils down, basically, to a pride in their moral decency and virtue.”
- Their nationality — their being Jews.
- Their having the law of God.
- Their relationship to God as a people.
- Their ethical knowledge and ability to make correct ethical decisions. The law of God gave them many detailed rules and regulations which they followed. It gave them a sense of being very pleasing to God, as they saw others making the wrong choices.
- Their knowledge and education in the law. They did not just have the law, but they mastered it.
- Their disseminating this knowledge of God’s law to others. They spread the knowledge of the law everywhere.
Paul’s argument is not a case for justification by works. After all, he already told us in 1:16-17 that we are saved by faith, not works. Paul’s argument is that the Jew has become like the Gentile. The Man with the Bible is as guilty before God as the Man without the Bible because he has failed to believe and obey God. Even some of the Gentiles live better lives than some Jews. The Man without the Bible finds a way to live a more righteous life than the Man with the Bible. How can this be? The question Paul is setting up is, “How is God going to save both the Jew and the Gentile?”
God will judge the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Who the Jew is doesn’t matter as much as who God makes the Jew. Paul is stripping away any foundation for assurance of salvation resting on anything other than the grace of God. Even if outward obedience is evident, inward disobedience resides, and God sees the heart. Grace rejected leads to conviction and damnation. And the one who accomplished the work of the gospel will carry out judgment on those who reject the gospel. There is a binary choice: be saved by Jesus or be punished by Jesus.
John Bunyan said, “The punishments are by the lashes of his [Jesus’] wrath, which will issue from his mouth like a stream of burning brimstone, ever kindling itself upon the soul. Thou must know this by the Word, and fly from it, or thou shalt know it by thy sins, and lie and cry in it.”
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Paul anticipates an objection from his opponent, “I have been circumcised!” But it is not circumcision that validates obedience to the law; it is obedience to the law that validates circumcision. The problem is that he hasn’t fully obeyed the law. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10).
If Paul’s opponent continues to put his confidence in his obedience to the law, he will continue to stand guilty before God, because no matter how hard he tries, he can’t impress God with his morality. He has failed to keep God’s standard. Even his circumcision – the mark of the covenant on his body – is worthless. Here’s the lesson: if we place our hope of righteousness on the things we do or don’t do, even if we bear the scars of our duty, we will fail to obtain eternal life because eternal life is given only in Jesus Christ. The proof is an inward change, regardless of an outward mark. The true mark of the Christian is so deep inside that no eye can see. It’s a change of the heart, by the Spirit. Paul is hinting at what he will explain later, namely, that righteousness before God comes from God by the Spirit through Jesus Christ. We cannot attain it on our own. We must receive it. And if we will receive it, we will have a righteousness in Christ that will never fade or falter.
John Bunyan, in his book, Christ, A Complete Savior, said,
“Many there be that begin with grace, and end with works, and think THAT is the only way. Indeed works will save from temporal punishments, when their imperfections are purged from them by the intercession of Christ; but to be saved and brought to glory, to be carried through this dangerous world, from my first moving after Christ till I set my foot within the gates of paradise, this is the work of my Mediator, of my high priest and intercessor; it is he that fetches us again when we are run away; it is he that lifts us up when the devil and sin has thrown us down; it is he that quickens us when we grow cold; it is he that comforts us when we despair; it is he that obtains fresh pardon when we have contracted sin; and he that purges our consciences when they are laden with guilt…We are saved by Christ; brought to glory by Christ; and all our works are no otherwise made acceptable to God but by the person and personal excellencies and works of Christ.”
Paul is pushing his opponent toward a decision. What will he do with the message of the gospel? How will he see and understand the person and work of Jesus? Bunyan says later on in his book, “[Jesus] justifies us, not either by giving laws unto us, or by becoming our example, or by our following of him in any sense, but by his blood shed for us. His blood is not laws, nor ordinances, nor commandments, but a price, a redeeming price. He justifies us by bestowing upon us, not by expecting from us; he justifies us by his grace, not by our works. In a word, thou must be well grounded in the knowledge of what Christ is, and how men are justified by him, or thou wilt not come unto God by him.”
In the gospel, God found a way to accept us and keep his standards. Will we have him under the terms of the gospel, or will we refuse his grace in our attempt to justify ourselves?