Those who are well versed in the Law of God need to be cautious that they do not pass judgment on others who violate God’s Law. The opening verse of chapter 2 is an indictment of the morally educated. In chapter one Paul pointed out the sins of the most notoriously guilty. Now Paul points his attention to those who are generally “moral” in conduct and congratulate themselves that they are not like those who Paul described in chapter one. Jesus made this illustration concerning the Pharisee and the Publican. Looking at that illustration of Jesus’ parable Paul now addresses the Pharisee. (Luke 18:10-14) In Paul’s day in many ways the Jew typified the moralist. Paul’s words in Romans 2:1-16 seem to have a wider application and that beyond the Jews. An example would be Seneca, a Roman moral teacher and tutor of Nero Seneca would agree wholeheartedly with Paul regarding the morals of most pagans. The problem for Seneca would be that he would think that he was different from those immoral people. Seneca was greatly admired by the Christians for his moral stand and strong family values. “But too often he tolerated in himself vices not so different from those which he condemned in others – the most flagrant instance being his connivance at Nero’s murder of his mother Agrippina.” (Bruce)
A moralist would certainly have agreed with Paul’s argument in chapter one against the sinner, but now Paul turns the same argument on the moralist himself. After all, Paul argues, those who judge others practice the same offences. When we judge others we are pointing to a higher standard than we ourselves can reach. The point also is that the standard condemns everyone, not only the obvious sinner. “Since you know the justice of God, as evidenced by the fact that you are judging others, you are without an excuse, because is the very act of judging you have condemned yourself.” (Murray)
We must note here that the moralist is not condemned for judging others but for being guilty of the same that he is judging others for. A moral man might object to this thinking and believe that he is not like the other sinners at all. Jesus spoke about this attitude. He spoke about a man who had a great piece of wood in his eye. This man wanted to remove a tiny bit of dust from another person’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5). Paul will demonstrate that all fall short of the glory of God and it is true that we are all sinners. “Not, you do the identical actions, but your conduct is the same, i.e., you sin against light. The sin of the Jews was the same, but their sins were not.” (Denney)
According to the truth is the idea of “according to the facts of the case.” The moralist will also be judged based on the facts. The point then is clear that if the moralist is just as guilty as the obvious sinner then he neither will escape the judgment of God. Paul is emphatic in [do you think] you will escape the judgment of God? Bearing down Paul is letting his readers know that there is no exception to this principle. Paul takes his argument right to the heart of the reader. “Our exhortations should be as forked arrows to stick in men’s hearts; and not wound only, as other arrows.” (Trapp) “Paul’s object is far greater than merely to convict also them of unrighteousness. He robs them, absolutely must rob them, of their moralist and their moralizing because they regard this as the way of escape from God’s wrath.” (Lenski) The proud person chooses to forget about God’s judgment. He thinks that God’s kindness and patience have no value. But God waits patiently. God wants people to repent. His time is not the same as human time. But suddenly the time will come when God will judge everyone (2 Peter 3:8-9).
Paul now announces God’s judgment against those who base their salvation on their morals. “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering”
Paul points his comments to the moralist who presumes on the goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering of God. The point of Paul is that all these attributes of God should have brought the moralist into a humble repentance instead of an attitude of superiority. Goodness is considered to be God’s kindness towards our past sin. God’s goodness is extended to us because we have not yet been judged. Forbearance then would be God’s kindness towards us in regard to our present sin. Longsuffering is in reference to God’s kindness towards us for our future sins. God knows that we sin tomorrow and further in the future yet he with holds His judgment from us. Paul describes these three aspects of God’s kindness as riches.
The riches of God’s mercy is measured by four considerations:
- His greatness – to wrong a great man is a great wrong and God is greatest of all – yet He shows mercy
- His omniscience – if someone knew all our sin, would they show mercy? Yet God shows mercy
- His power – sometimes wrongs are not settled because they are out of our power, yet God is able to settle every wrong against Him – yet He is rich in mercy
- The object of His mercy, mere man – would we show mercy to an ant? Yet God is rich in mercy
God is love and full of kindness towards us and it is a sin for us to presume upon the graciousness of God. Some even believe that they deserve God’s kindness.
Some see the forbearance and longsuffering of God as a weakness in God. You may hear people say “If there is a God in heaven, let Him strike me dead!” When this does not happen they will say “See, I told you there was no God.” Others may misinterpret God’s forbearance and long suffering as His approval, and therefore refuse to repent. “It seems to me that every morning when a man wakes up still impenitent, and finds himself out of hell, the sunlight seems to say, ‘I shine on thee yet another day, as that in this day thou mayest repent.’ When your bed receives you at night I think it seems to say, ‘I will give you another night’s rest that you may live to turn from your sins and trust in Jesus.’ Every mouthful of bread that comes to the table says, ‘I have to support your body that still you may have space for repentance.’ Every time you open the Bible the pages say, ‘We speak with you that you may repent.’ Every time you hear a sermon, if it be such a sermon as God would have us preach, it pleads with you to turn unto the Lord and live.” (Spurgeon)
“Not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance.” A lot of people miss-understand the goodness of God towards the wicked. God’s goodness is part of His plan to lead them to repentance.
Men should see the goodness of God and understand.
- God has been better to them than they deserve
- God has shown them kindness when they have ignored Him
- God has shown them kindness when they have mocked Him
- God is not a cruel master and they may safely surrender to Him
- God is perfectly willing to forgive them
- God should be served out of simple gratitude
We are not driven to repentance, this is not God’s way, and we are led to repentance. “Notice, dear friends, that the Lord does not drive you to repentance. Cain was driven away, as a fugitive and a vagabond, when he had killed his righteous brother Abel; Judas went and hanged himself, being driven by an anguish of remorse because of what he had done in betraying his Lord; but the sweetest and best repentance is that which comes, not by driving, but by drawing: ‘The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.’“ (Spurgeon)
“In the New Testament, repentance is not simply negative. It means turning to a new life in Christ, a life of active service to God. It should not be confused with remorse, which is a deep sorrow for sin but lacks the positive note in repentance.” (Morris)
“You are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” The Presumption of the moralist upon God’s graciousness Paul points out that they are storing up a treasure of God’s wrath in the day of wrath. The moralist thinks he is treasuring up merit with God as he condemns the “sinners” around him; actually, he only treasures up the wrath of God. “Just as men add to their treasure of wealth, so dost thou add to the treasures of punishment.” (Poole) As men treasure up the wrath of God against them, what holds back the flood of wrath? God Himself! He holds it back out of His forbearance and longsuffering! “The figure is that of a load that God bears, which men heap up more and more, making heavier and heavier. The wonder of it all is that God holds any of it up even for a day; yet he holds up all its weight and does not let it crash down on the sinner’s head.” (Lenski)
“In the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” Jesus first came in the loving character of the Father and revealed with great emphasis. The second coming of Jesus will be with the righteous judgment of God and its revelation will be most clear.
The works of the moralist will fall short of God’s perfect standard.
“Will render to each one according to his deeds.” This is also an awesome and fearful thought. This condemns the moralist as well as the obvious sinner. Both parts of the Bible record the fact that God judges human actions. For example, in the Old Testament, see Psalm 62:12 and Jeremiah 17:10. In the New Testament there are examples in Matthew 16:27 and Revelation 20:12.
“Eternal life to those.” If it were possible for one to do good at all times, then they could merit eternal life. The truth is there is none for all fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) In one way or another all are, have been, or will be self-seeking and disobedient to the truth. At some time in life past, present, or future all will obey unrighteousness. Paul is not saying that a person can earn eternal life by his good deeds. Only faith in Jesus will save that person. But after a person has trusted Jesus, that person will want to please him. So that person will do the right things, because of the faith that God has given to him. (James 2:17)
“Indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil.” Because all have fallen short of God’s standard of constant goodness, God’s wrath will come to all who do evil – without respect to whether they are Jew or Gentile. This judgment comes to the Jew first. If they are first in line for the gospel (Romans 1:16) and first in line for reward (Romans 2:10), then they are also first in line for judgment.
God’s judgment upon the Jew.
God’s principle of impartiality.
The Greek word for partiality comes from joining two words together, receive and face. This definition means to judge things based on external or preconceived notions. Ancient Rabbis taught that God showed partiality towards the Jews. The Rabbis said: “God will judge the Gentiles with one measure and the Jews with another.” The righteous judgment of God is not withheld because someone has not heard the law, God’s judgment is only withheld if someone actually does the law. A Jew, or a religious person, may think they are saved because they know the law. The problem with this view is that no one can keep the law. A Gentile may think they are saved because they do not have the law, but has kept the dictates of his own conscience. “People will be condemned, not because they have the law or do not have the law, but because they have sinned.” (Morris) Judgment will come to the un-repented sinner with or without the law.
Possession of the law is no advantage to the Jew in the Day of Judgment.
The Gentile can be condemned, Paul explains, without the law. The conscience of the Gentile the law written upon their heart, is enough to condemn them, or theoretically, enough to justify them. Pagan authors in Paul’s day referred to the “unwritten law” within a man. This thought was regarded as something that points them to the right way. Even though it was not embodied in written law, it was in many ways more important than written law. Paul’s phrase “a law for themselves,” does not mean that these Gentiles made up their own laws. The meaning is that they were obedient to their conscience, the law which resides within. “He indeed shows that ignorance is in vain pretended as an excuse by the Gentiles, since they prove by their own deeds that they have some rule of righteousness.” (Calvin)
The theory is that a man might be justified by obeying his conscience. The truth is that every man has violated his own conscience, God’s internal revelation to man, just as everyman has violated God’s written revelation. In Romans 2:14 Paul states that a Gentile may by nature do that which is contained in the law, Paul is careful not to say that a Gentile could fulfill the requirements of the law by nature. Even though God has His law written in the heart of every man, still man can corrupt His work. Conscience varies from person to person, and our conscience can be damaged. The conscience of man can also be restored through Jesus Christ. If our conscience is condemning us wrongly, we can take comfort in the idea that God is greater than our heart. (1 John 3:20)
The people who have never heard the Word of God still have a moral compass that they are accountable to their conscience. “God is describing how He has constituted all men: there is a ‘work’ within them, making them morally conscious.” (Newell) “He is not saying that the law is written on their hearts, as people often say, but that the work of the law, what the law requires of people, is written there.” (Morris)
On that day when God judges the secrets of men, not one man will find refuge from God’s judgment by a claim of ignorance of His written revelation. The internal revelation from God is enough to condemn us all. “Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:5) “God therefore will judge all nations according to the use and abuse they have made of this word, whether it was written in the heart, or written on tables of stone.” (Clarke)
The Day of Judgment was part of Paul’s gospel. Paul never shrank from man’s absolute accountability God. “‘My gospel”’ does not this show his courage? As much as to say, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.’ He says, ‘my gospel,’ as a soldier speaks of ‘my colors,’ or of ‘my king.’ He resolves to bear this banner to victory, and to serve this royal truth even to the death.” (Spurgeon) The idea that God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ is distinctively Christian. The Jews taught that God the Father alone would judge the world, committing judgment to no one, not even the Messiah.
The boast of the Jew.
In this passage, every boast of the Jew concerns the possession of the law. In Paul’s day the Jewish people were extremely confident that God gave His holy law to them as a nation. Their belief was this confirmed their special status as the chosen people of God and this ensured their salvation. Even though the Jew was gratefully appreciative of the law as a gift from God, Paul will show how the mere possession of the law will justify no one.
The indictment of the Jew.
“You have the law, do you keep it? You can see how others break the law, do you see how you break it also?” At the time of Paul the Jewish rabbis interpreted the law is such a way they completely thought they were justified by the law. Jesus exposed the error in their thinking of such interpretations. (Matthew 5:19-48) In the Church there were many Jewish teachers who were not sincere. (1 Timothy 1:3-7 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 Acts 20:29-31) Some people were only teaching because they wanted to earn money.
They seemed to have great knowledge of the Bible. But they themselves did not know God properly. They thought that they could teach the Gentile Christians about God. But in fact, the Gentile Christians already knew God better than these teachers did! Perhaps these teachers were not actually guilty of the wrong deeds that Paul mentions. Paul is emphasizing their wrong attitudes, not their outer physical acts. For example, they were teaching that it is wrong to steal. But they themselves only cared about money. And they did not even care whether they obtained that money in an honest way (Titus 1:11).
God’s law is applied to both our actions and our attitudes. There are times that we only want our attitudes evaluated, and at other times only our actions. God will hold us accountable for both our motives and our actions. “Hypocrites can talk of religion, as if their tongues did run upon patterns, they are fair professors, but foul sinners; as was that carnal cardinal Cremensis, the pope’s legate, sent hither, A.D. 1114, to interdict priests’ marriages, and being taken in the act with a common strumpet, he excused it by saying he was no priest himself, but a corrector of them.” (Trapp)
Morris on the idea of robbing temples: “Clearly some people held that a Jew might well make profits from dishonest practices connected with idolatry, and Paul may well have had this in mind.”
The Jews are reminded by Paul that God had said in Old Testament scripture that the Jews failure to obey the law has the result of the Gentile blaspheming God. In Isaiah (52:5) and Ezekiel (36:22), God says that the nations insulted him. Enemies had defeated the Jews. So the nations wondered whether God had any power to protect his people. But these terrible things had happened because God’s people were not obeying God. Paul could see that the same things were happening again in the churches. Christians were appointing leaders and teachers who were not sincere. The results would be terrible. And people everywhere would insult God when they saw the behavior of those Christians.
The irrelevance of circumcision.
The Jew believed that as a descendant of Abraham and circumcised is a base for his salvation. Paul rightly answers that the Jews argument is irrelevant in regards to justification. The Jew believed that his circumcision guaranteed his salvation. He agreed that he might be punished in the world to come but that he could never be lost. The rabbis of Paul’s day taught that Abraham himself sat at the gate of hell and made sure that none of his circumcised descendants where there. The rabbis also taught that “God will judge Gentiles with one measure and the Jews with another,” and “All Israelites will have part in the world to come.” Circumcision, Baptism, or any other ritual in itself, doesn’t save anyone. In the Ancient world Egyptians also circumcised their boys but this did not make them true followers of the true God. Even Ishmael, Abraham’s son, was circumcised, but this did not make him a child of the covenant. Baptism and Circumcision is the same thing as a label on a can. If the outer label does not match the contents inside the can, then something is wrong. Being born again changes what is on the inside of a man, then you can put the appropriate label on the outside. This is not a new thought, as the Law of Moses itself teachers this principle. “So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)
Circumcision was the sign that God gave to Abraham. It showed the covenant between God and his nation (Genesis 17:9-10). Because of the covenant relationship, the Jews needed to obey God’s law. Paul reminded the church in Galatia about this. ‘Everyone who receives circumcision must obey the whole law’ (Galatians 5:3).
The Jewish teachers said that Gentile Christians needed to receive circumcision. The teachers said that this was God’s law. But really, they were not sincere. Their real aim was to control people by means of the laws and traditions of religion (Galatians 4:17; Galatians 5:1-2). But this is the opposite of the real Christian message. The Bible says that we must trust Christ alone. Our own efforts cannot save us from the punishment for our sins.
If an uncircumcised man kept the righteous requirement of the law through his conscience, (Romans 2:15) would he not be justified, instead of the circumcised Jew who did not keep the Law? The point is emphasized: having the law or having a ceremony isn’t enough. God requires righteousness. Morris quoting Manson: “If they are loyal to the good they know, they will be acceptable to God; but it is a very big ‘if’.”
And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? Here is God’s answer to the one who says, “What about the Pygmy in Africa who has never heard the gospel?” God will judge the Pygmy by what he has heard and by how he has lived by it. This does, of course, mean that the Pygmy will be guilty before God, because no one has lived perfectly by their conscience, or responded to what can be known through God’s creation. Of course, the problem with the innocent native is that we cannot find an innocent native anywhere. The question has been asked, “What about the Pygmy in Africa who hasn’t heard the gospel?” This is a good question but there are two far more important questions. 1) What about you who hear the gospel, but reject it? What excuse is there for you? 2) What about you, who are commanded to take the gospel to that Pygmy in Africa (Matthew 28:19), but refuse to do it?
All our outward signs of a religious experience may earn us the praise of men, but they will not earn us praise from God. Our outward signs and works is not the evidence of our rightness with God. The evidence must be found in the work of God within our hearts, which shows itself in fruit. The Holy Spirit changes people’s lives. He gives them power to live in the right manner. The law cannot do this.
A ‘real Jew’ is anyone who obeys God. That person does not need to belong to the natural families of the Jewish people. And that person’s body does not need to be circumcised. But that person’s heart must be circumcised. And so that person receives the benefit of the promises that God gave to Abraham (Galatians 3:29).
William Newell summarizes Romans 2 with “Seven Great Principles of God’s Judgment” that are worth noting:
- God’s judgment is according to truth (Romans 2:2)
- God’s judgment is according to accumulated guilt (Romans 2:5)
- God’s judgment is according to works (Romans 2:6)
- God’s judgment is without partiality (Romans 2:11)
- God’s judgment is according to performance, not knowledge (Romans 2:13)
- God’s judgment reaches the secrets of the heart (Romans 2:16)
- God’s judgment is according to reality, not religious profession (Romans 2:17-29)