STUDIES IN ROMANS

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002

STUDY FOUR: WHY 'A RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD' IS NECESSARY [PART 2] ROMANS 2:1-3:8

From 2:1 onwards Paul writes as if he is addressing a person who is verbally or mentally interrupting him with criticisms, false conclusions and objections. He responds to these anticipated interjections by pointing out that his critic's thinking is totally contradictory to the gospel of grace. It would appear that this critic is a Jewish Christian believer, who has genuine faith in Jesus Christ but who has not yet understood the radical significance of the cross. He is saved by his faith in Christ, but he does not yet understand what that salvation really is. [Note that we have already seen in 1:18-32 how significant our minds are; Paul's whole intention in this letter is to get his readers to think rightly.]

Before we look at each of these anticipated interjections or questions it is necessary to state that this passage contains the possibility of a profound and significant misinterpretation. If we are not careful, we could very easily understand this passage, and particularly 2:1-16, to teach the actual possibility of salvation by works. There are problems with such an interpretation:

  1. It would be contrary to Paul's whole purpose in writing the letter, which is to defend the truth of justification by faith, of a righteousness which is from God, and to encourage the believers in Rome to live in the truth of that gospel.
  2. It would assume that it is actually possible for unbelievers to gain eternal life by 'doing good' (2:7). To interpret the passage this way would be to contradict not only Paul's teaching in this letter, but the whole of Scripture as well.
  3. It would also mean that some people who have never heard God's truth actually do 'by nature' (2:14) the things written in God's law, and have 'the requirements of the law ' written on their hearts'. We have only to read to the end of this section of Romans (1:18-3:20, and especially 3:9-18) to learn that Paul certainly does not believe that. Rather, he strongly teaches that any truth we humans have been given we have corrupted and rejected, and that not one of us is 'righteous'.

Rather than make this mistake, we should understand Romans 2:1-3:8 to be an integral part of Paul's message to the believers (Jewish and Gentile) in Rome, and, indeed, that in this chapter he is putting the spotlight on the central issue that provoked the letter: that the Jews who had become believers in Jesus Christ were still holding onto their possession of the law, their circumcision, and their perceived obedience to the law as giving them unique legal leverage in the presence of God. They had received him, as their Lord and Messiah, but they have not yet understood the meaning of his salvation. They are saved, through their faith, but they have not understood what that salvation is, nor its implications. He here particularly addresses the Christian Jews, and he does so by responding to the supposed individual Jewish Christian interjector.

Imagined interjection 1: That's it Paul! You're dead right! Those worthless Gentiles are just like that! You've got them down to a tee! No good, godless, lawless, wicked dogs that they are! God's wrath upon them! (We Jews are not like that.)

Paul has just written a devastating indictment against the godlessness and wickedness of mankind (Romans 1:18-32). He anticipates that his Jewish Christian readers will automatically (in line with their normal thinking and attitudes) understand him to be speaking about Gentiles, exclusive of Jews. He knows that in the normal run of events they would not consider themselves to be included in his indictment, but would be applauding him for his accurate depiction of the depravity of the Gentiles. He rapidly sets about correcting their misunderstanding.

Paul's response 1:

'You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else ... Do you think you will escape God's judgment? ... do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, which leads you toward repentance?' (2:1-4)

I take the liberty to expand Paul's words to clarify his meaning:

2:1-4 Hey you! Paul says. I hear you standing there passing judgment on the Gentiles! Can't you see that I'm talking about you too! You do the very same things! If you want to live your life on the basis of law and judgment, then God's judgment will fall on you too! You're not immune just because you're a Jew! It's not your Jewish heritage that let's you off the hook! It's God's mercy. As I will make plain later, God didn't give you the law as a means to merit his acceptance, he gave it to you not so that you would merit it, but that it would lead you to his mercy. And if you think you can stand in judgment against the Gentile believers because you have the law, then you are actually disregarding and despising the kindness of God that brought you, as well as them, to repentance, that is to true faith in Jesus Christ the Lord. All that I have just written applies to everyone - to you Jews as well as the Gentiles. That is how God views every human being when he looks at them as they are in themselves.

2:5-11 Do you realize what you are actually doing when you relate to other believers on the basis of law and judgment? You are stubbornly living as though the Gospel was not in place, as though you will face God's judgment on the basis of your own law-based performance. (You are living as though Jesus Christ had not died!) And what happens if there is no death of Jesus? What happens is, as the whole world knows, that 'God will give to each person according to what he has done', that the Jew, as well as the Gentile, will be assessed on the basis of how they lived. That the Jew as well as the Gentile must succeed in living according to God's holy standard. The Jews will not get special treatment; you will actually be the first to face the judgment. Your 'chosen nation' status, your possession of the law, will count for nothing. You think that by the law you are storing up righteousness (legal acquittal), but you are actually storing up wrath.

For further study:

[Oh, and just as an aside, we can imagine Paul saying, if you look closely at the contrasts I have set up in verses 7-10 you will realize that it is only those who are 'in Christ' who have the 'eternal life', and the 'glory, honour and peace' that I have mentioned there, as I hope you will realize by the time I've finished this letter!]

Study the following contrasts and discuss the proposition that the right hand list is, looking at on another level, a description of believers in Christ Jesus.

2:1

The presumption of passing judgement

Leaving judgement to God

2:5

Stubbornness

Unrepentant heart

Submission

Repentance

2:7-8

Self-seeking

Reject the truth

Follow evil

Wrath

Anger

Persistence in doing good

Seek glory, honour and immortality

Eternal life

2:9-10

Trouble and distress

Do evil

Glory, honour, peace

Do good

2:12-13

Perish

Be judged

Will be declared righteous

2:13-15

Sin apart from the law/under the law

Obey the law

2:12-13 You think that you can stand in the presence of God on your own two feet and the fact that you possess the law will exonerate you from judgment? It won't. You will in fact be judged by the law. The Gentiles, who do not have the law, will be judged apart from the law. When you relate to God and others on the basis of law and judgment, it is not constant hearing the law that counts, but obeying the law.

2:14-15 In fact, God writes his laws in the hearts and consciences of Gentiles; this is evident every time a Gentile happens to do what is written in God's law, even though he doesn't have God's law.

[By the way, says Paul, have you noticed? These Gentile Christians - these people you are standing over in judgment because you think your possession of the law makes you something special and exonerates you from judgment, these people who are actually obeying God's law spontaneously without ever having heard God's law? This clearly demonstrates that God has written his law in their hearts by his Spirit in accordance with the prophecies of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, and the promises of Jesus Christ in John 14-16.]

For further study: Study Jeremiah 31:32-34; Ezekiel 36:24-27; John 14:23-26; 16:8-15 and 2 Cor 3:17-18, for an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in moving the believer to a life of conformity to the law of God. Discuss in what ways this Spirit motivated obedience is, on the one hand, similar to law-based obedience, and, on the other hand, different from law-based obedience. Discuss also the role obedience plays: in which is obedience believed to promote salvation, and in which does salvation promote obedience? Consider also the question: if obedience is absent in one who confesses faith in Christ, what does this infer about the presence or otherwise of salvation?

2:16 God's day of judgment will come. And when it comes God will judge men's 'secrets'. You are looking on the outside. You are looking at people according to the criteria of law, and how well people conform to its specific details. You do not see the inner man. You do not see the relationship of the heart to God. You do not see what their relationship is to Jesus Christ. Remember what I said just before (1:18-32) and check out what I will write in a little while (3:9-20), and you will realize that no one makes the grade, no one can merit God's acquittal on the basis of their own performance. As I will show you soon, all are condemned. When the judgment comes it will not be according to law for the true believer, for no one would stand unaccused, but 'through Jesus Christ' as my gospel declares.

Summary of 2:1-16 : Because of 1:18-32, the (Jewish) Christian who judges another (Gentile) Christian doesn't have a leg to stand on. Acceptance with God is not based on externals but on internals. In judging the other, the Jew (who has God's law and is using it as a basis of judgment) is actually despising God's mercy, for his possession of God's law should have led him to repentance as it revealed his sinfulness, bringing him to trust in the righteousness of Christ, rather than leading him to self-righteous condemnation of the Gentile who did not have God's law to identify his sin. The Jew, thinking that by the law he is storing up righteousness is actually storing up wrath. The truth of the matter is that for those who are believers in Christ the law has ceased to be a criterion of judgment. Jesus Christ, not law, is the key factor, according to the gospel.

Imagined interjection 2 : But listen Paul! We're Jews! We possess the Law! We have a special relationship with God! We're guides to the blind and teachers of God's truth! We know the truth! Surely all of this counts for something! Surely all of this makes us superior and gives us something to brag about and glory in! We're special!

In 2:17-28 Paul identifies a great list of criteria on the basis of which his critic believed he merited special treatment from God, and in particular, by which he merited God's acceptance. These are:

  • The fact that he was a Jew, not a Gentile 2:17
  • The fact that he possessed the law 2:17
  • The fact that he knew God's will 2:18
  • The fact that he knew the difference between right and wrong 2:18
  • The fact that he was instructed in the law 2:18
  • The fact that he was a guide for the blind and a light for those in the dark 2:19
  • The fact that he was an instructor of the foolish and a teacher of infants 2:20
  • The fact that he has, in the law, the embodiment of knowledge and truth 2:20
  • The fact that he possessed circumcision 2:25

Paul's supposed critic considered that all of this made him secure in his relationship with God. He felt that the privilege of all the above rendered him free from the judgment and condemnation of God. Notice the words Paul uses to describe his critic: 'you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God' (17), 'you brag about the law' (23).

For your study: The verb kaukaomai translated 'brag' (NIV) or 'boast' (KJV) is sometimes translated in other passages as 'glory' or 'rejoice'. Check these out passages and discuss the significance of this word, asking yourself the question: 'What should I be bragging, boasting, glorying and rejoicing about - Romans 5:2,3,11; 1 Cor 1:29-31; 3:21-4:7; 2 Cor 5:11-16; 10:7-12:11; Gal 6:12-16; Eph 2:8-10; Phil 3:1-11 (where 'rejoice' in verse 1, as in 4:4, translates Xairo, which means to be glad or full of joy, while in 3:3 kaukaomai is used).'
Personal question: what are you bragging/boasting/glorying about, your own performance or the righteousness of Christ?

Paul's response 2: Paul is determined to point out that possession of all of the above privileges, rather than rendering his critic immune from God's judgment, puts him in a position of greater responsibility. Rather than reduce his culpability it intensifies it. Paul asks his critic a number of questions:

  • Have you been taking notice of what you teach others? 2:21
  • Have you been obeying the commandments you lay on others? 2:21,22
  • Have you been dishonouring God by breaking the very law which you claim gives you protection? 2:23

All of these questions are geared to make Paul's critic realize that his possession of the law is of no significance if he does not also keep that law; his teaching of the law is of no significance if he does not also keep that law; and his bragging about the law is of no use if he does not also keep that law.

Paul then goes on to address the question of circumcision (2:25-29), which was 'the mark of the covenant'. It identified the Jews as the people of God. Just as Paul has pointed out that possession of the law of God is no protection against his judgment, so here Paul points out that the physical mark of circumcision is of no significance whatsoever if it is not accompanied by keeping the law. (Note that Paul teaches in Galatians 3:10 and 5:1-6 that if a person thinks that being circumcised significantly affects his relationship with God, then that person is obliged to keep the whole law. If we think that keeping one point of the law improves our standing with God then we must keep 100% of the law 100%, 100% of the time).

Paul states:

  • Circumcision has value if you observe the law. 2:25
  • If you break the law you are no different from an uncircumcised person. 2:25
  • If an uncircumcised person keeps the law, God regards him as circumcised. 2:26
  • Such a person condemns the circumcised law-breaker. 2:27
  • Outward, physical things have nothing to do with being a true Jew. 2:28
  • What signifies is inward, of the heart, by the Spirit 2:29

Paul has thus pointed out that just as the Law does not make a person immune from God's judgment, even so circumcision does not make a person immune from God's judgment. And even as he told us (2:15) that there are those with God's law written on their hearts, so now he tells us that that there are those who possess a 'circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code' (2:29). While, on one level of meaning this presents us with the theoretical possibility (but, as Paul teaches in 1:18-32 and 3:9-18, not the actual existence) of a person who merits God's acceptance because of their actions, on another level of meaning, Paul is clearly writing of genuine Christian believers, as indicated above, and as clear in other passages.

Paul is here preparing his readers for the massive paradigm shift of the gospel righteousness. He jolts them to attention by stating 'a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly'. He tells them that 'such a man', this man who is 'a Jew' without being a Jew, who is circumcised without being circumcised, who obeys the law without even possessing the law, without even knowing he is obeying the law, such a man's 'praise is not from men, but from God.' There is something going on here far beyond a law based relationship with God, there is something going on here far beyond a religion based on external conformity to ritual expectations. There is something going on here which contradicts not only the Jewish perceptions, but also the perceptions of men and their philosophies and religions all over the cosmos. Men give praise on the basis of meritorious performance of duty. Men expect to be praised for the same, and to receive blame for the lack of it. But here Paul speaks of a man whose praise is not locked into this tit-for-tat paradigm of performance. Here is a man whose praise is from God (2:29) on the basis of something not observable by man.

For your study: [1] Read Romans 3:27-31; 4:9-12; 1 Corinthians 7:17-20; Galatians 5:1-12; Ephesians 2:11-22; Philippians 3:1-11; and Colossians 2:11; 3:9b-12a. Discuss the significance of circumcision in these passages, and Paul's teaching that true believers possess the real circumcision as contrasted to ritual circumcision.'

[2] Is it possible for a man to enter the presence of God and find 'praise'? Study Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Psalm 24:3-5; Isaiah 6:1-5. In what way does the gospel make it possible?

Imagined interjection 3: Well Paul, if what you are saying is true, is there any advantage in being a Jew? Is there any value in being circumcised, in being one of God's covenant people? [3:1]

Paul's response 3 : Yes. 'Much in every way! First of all (the rest he does not mention till chapters 9 to 11), they have been entrusted with the very words of God' (3:2). It was the Jews to whom God made himself known, to whom he sent his word; it was the Jews through whose history he worked in a self-revealing way. It was the Jews to whom he entrusted all the varying forms of prophetic anticipation of Jesus Christ and salvation. The Old Testament was theirs, and it spoke of Christ and his gospel. They, above all people, had been prepared by God to receive his Son. They, above all people, had been prepared to embrace the death of Christ as God's way of salvation. Indeed, if they had only noticed it, their scriptures held the same message of salvation by grace through faith as the gospel.

Notice that Paul uses the word 'entrusted' - the Jews' possession of the words of God was more than mere possession: it was a privilege involving responsibility, not only the responsibility of living according to God's self-revelation, but also the responsibility of making that revelation known to the nations (Romans 2:21-24; Genesis 12:3; Exodus 19:6 ('a kingdom of priests'- that is, a kingdom that has a priestly role on behalf of other nations); 1 Chronicles 16:8-9, 23-33; Psalm 57:7-11; 67:1-7; 86:8-10; 117:1-2; Isaiah 42:10-12; 43:6-13; Jeremiah 1:4,10; 4:1-2; 3:14-17; 33:6-9).

Paul then digresses from speaking of the advantage of being a Jew, and proceeds to address a barrage of questions, all of which in some way, seem to be looking for a way to escape the condemnation under which Paul has included the Jews along with the rest of mankind.

  1. Does their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? No. He remains true and faithful.
  2. Can we say that God is unrighteous in judging us, when our unrighteousness actually highlights his righteousness? No.
  3. Why am I condemned as a sinner, when my falsehood increases God's glory by enhancing his truthfulness? Why not sin so that good will result? Such a thought, says Paul, deserves condemnation.

In grasping for some way out of condemnation Paul's representative interjector, whose mind parallels the minds of all people when pushed into a corner, has the presumption to suggest that the Jews lack of belief impinges on God's faithfulness, that their sinfulness is excused because it highlights the mercy and righteousness of God, and that therefore God has no right to judge them (3:5-7). In fact, because their evil provided opportunity for the manifestation of the glory and mercy of God, it is taken up as a motivation for continuing to do evil (8).

For discussion: In what ways do Christians today justify and excuse their continuing sinfulness? Is it ever okay to justify sin? Why or why not? Make a list or reasons why sin, although it is forgiven, is never okay.