Romans 2 –
“Even the religious person has no excuse”
From a reading of my article on the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, it is clear that all people are guilty of sin and by reason of this are subject to God’s judgment. But when St. Paul wrote this epistle, many Jews believed Israel to be inherently superior to all other nations on account of God’s election of them as his chosen nation, demonstrated by his election of the Patriarchs, by the Exodus, by his covenant with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai, and by the revelation of his Law. This belief in their religious superiority led some to be judgmental of the sins of others. In this chapter, St. Paul demolishes hypocrisy and the sin of judging others, and exposes the futility of anyone’s claim to superiority as a Jew while he is living a sinful life. If we are to interpret this chapter correctly today, we must acknowledge that St. Paul is not just correcting the Jew who judges others but everyone who does so. Today we might add that the Christian who believes himself superior to non-Christians while living a sinful life is as guilty as the rest of the world.
At the end of the first chapter, St. Paul wrote about the people who, knowing God’s just judgment that those who commit such sins are worthy of death, not only do them, but even approve those who do them (Romans 1:32). It is for this reason that those who know God’s judgment that sin merits death, yet disapprove of these sins, while continuing to commit them, but judging sinners, are inexcusable, that is, unable to be excused from God’s judgment. Everyone who passes judgment on the sins of others is, in fact, condemning himself, since he commits the same sins (Romans 2:1). To one who argues that he might not commit exactly the same sins, the reply could be made that in breaking any commandment of God, one has broken all of the commandments (James 2:10). It is very significant that this form of discourse that St. Paul uses bears some similarity to a diatribe, a bitter denunciation of a person, in this case, a person representing all who pass judgment on sinners. No one who passes judgment can be excused from God’s judgment. The theologian Karl Barth expressed it thus:
Since power belongs only to God, it is the tragic story of every man of God that he has to contend for the right of God by placing himself in the wrong. This must be so if the men of God are not to usurp the place of God.
– p.57, Edwyn Hoskins (translator): Karl Barth: The Epistle to the Romans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933. Reprinted 1968.
It is not the case that any of us can be among a select group of people who are exempt from God’s judgment on sin and the sinner. For all who commit sin fall under this judgment. There can be no escape either by thinking that somehow God’s judgment on sin and the sinner is erroneous, since Romans 2:2 informs us that God’s judgment is true against those who commit sins.
In this diatribe against the religious hypocrite, St. Paul asks the rhetorical question whether the man who judges others for the sins which he himself continues to commit, thinks that he will escape the judgment of God (Romans 2:3). None of us can escape the judgment of God on our sin, and the sooner we realize it, the better, for if we think we can, we are despising the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance and patience, and showing that we are willfully ignoring the fact that the kindness of God is intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). If one remains unwilling to turn away from a life of sin, one is storing up God’s wrath for the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Romans 2:5), who will repay everyone according to his deeds (Romans 2:6; Proverbs 24:12).
This quotation of the truth that God will repay everyone according to his deeds begins a section of this discourse in which St. Paul turns away from diatribe to teach about the ways in which God will judge people on Judgment Day. God’s judgment is based on nothing other than the behavior of each individual, which includes the goal each has set for his life, whether for good or for evil. Verses 6-11 of this chapter may appear to teach the doctrine of salvation by works alone, but we should interpret no part of Holy Scripture in a way that makes it conflict with other clear teaching of the Bible (Article XX, The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion). As we shall see, the chapters following Romans 2, teach clearly that one is saved by grace and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. What is described in verses 7 and 10 is the life of good works that is the fruit, or evidence, of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those to whom God will give eternal life are those who persevere in good deeds, seeking glory, honor and immortality, while on those who disobey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, he will bring indignation and wrath. The latter will issue in trouble and distress to everyone who does evil, whether Jew or Gentile. But there will be glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good, whether Jew or Gentile, since God shows no partiality (vv.7-11).
In the section which follows (vv. 12-16), St. Paul shows that God will judge all people, whether they knew and received the law of God or not (nations that never received the revelation of God in Christ). Here he allows for the possibility of those who did not receive the Gospel and the Scriptures as then known (the Old Testament Canon) to show in their lives that they have God’s law written on their hearts (v.15), and they will be judged according to how they live. Their conscience will bear witness to their deeds, and their thoughts will excuse or accuse one another on the day when God in Jesus Christ will judge the secrets of people (vv.15-16).
Finally, St. Paul returns to his diatribe against the religious hypocrite, depicted as a Jew in this passage (vv.17-27). The point of his doctrine here is that all the boasts of the Jew in the law and in knowing God, as well as in teaching the ignorant God’s ways, are useless in view of the fact that he himself commits the very sins against which he teaches. It means that his circumcised state counts for nothing, since the man who is uncircumcised but keeps the law of God shows that he is a Jew inwardly, being circumcised in the heart in spirit (v.28). This man receives his commendation from God, not from men (v.29).
How might we approach a modern interpretation of this chapter? We might conclude that a religious background, knowledge of the Bible, a Christian upbringing, a knowledge of the Christian faith, must find expression in an authentic Christian way of life. There must be no continuing, secret habits of sin, which will invalidate the whole of our Christian witness. In view of this and of the sinfulness of all human beings, none of us should pass judgment on another, for in doing so we condemn ourselves. No matter the culture of our upbringing and background, whether Christian or non-Christian, all human beings, whatever their nation or race, are subject to God’s judgment on account of their sin. In my exposition of the third chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, I shall consider both God’s diagnosis of man’s sinful condition according to various passages of the Old Testament and the revelation of God’s righteousness in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness and salvation of all who believe in him.