Romans Chapter 2



You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  Romans 2:1

We do not know exactly to whom Paul is addressing these verses (1-16). It is likely that he is using a diatribe style here which assumes some objector comes up with an argument that needs addressing.  No doubt, Paul had much practice with such objectors in his many travels.  Several commentators think he has the Jews in mind here, while others think the passage is written to the moralists among the Gentiles.  Nevertheless, the passage points out the great danger in judging others.

In Matthew 7:1-2, Jesus says: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” In John’s eighth chapter the judgment of the Pharisees and others was turned back upon them.  They had brought a woman taken in adultery to Jesus and they expected him to harshly judge her, even decreeing her stoning.  Instead he said: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8:7).  Upon hearing this they shamefully slipped away, one by one.

The sad story of King David’s adultery in 2 Samuel 12 further illustrates the folly of judging.  The prophet Nathan came to David, relating the case of a rich man who had taken away that which was most precious to a certain poor man.  Upon hearing the story, David became irate and immediately passed judgment upon the rich man.  It was at this point that Nathan turned the judgment back upon David by saying to him: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).  Barnes comments upon people’s tendency to judge others by saying: “The heart is deceitful. When we judge others we should make it a rule to examine ourselves on that very point.”1  Better still, we should not judge others at all.  The Bible further advises us: Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord
comes” (1 Cor. 4:5).

Most of our problem with judging people is that we don’t really understand their situations and therefore our judgment is clouded from the outset. We also tend to get our own feelings all mixed up in our judgment.  It is much different with God.  Paul says: Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth” (2:2).  That is the big difference.  God knows the whole truth about the person and his judgments are absolutely true and just, while at the same time they are mixed with his love
and mercy.

Paul goes on: “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (2:3). Stott remarks here: “Paul uncovers in these verses a strange human foible, namely our tendency to be critical of everybody except ourselves.”2  The apostle has sufficiently shown that when we fail to judge ourselves we will certainly be judged by God (cf. 1 Cor.11:31).

God’s judgment is kind and long-suffering toward all people.  We see in scripture that “he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).  He does this because of his great love, mercy and kindness toward all people.  Paul asks: Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” ( 2:4).  Repentance should be the natural outcome of God’s kindness expressed to us all but so often this is not the case and people end up expressing bitterness toward God.

In verse 5 the apostle writes: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5).  Clearly, the wonderful revelation of God’s goodness all around us in the creation still leaves some people with stubborn and unrepentant hearts.  Often people feel they are somehow storing up merit before God but this verse assures us that they are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of
God’s judgment.

Numerous folks in our postmodern world no longer believe that God is a judge.  They believe that if there is a God at all he is a God of love only, who happily overlooks evil deeds.  Once I was conducting a meeting in England and I mentioned something about God being the judge of the world.  A woman in the audience stood up immediately and replied that God is not a God of judgment but a God of love.  I felt the Holy Spirit give me a quick answer to her objection and I fired back: “But without judgment love is meaningless.”  With that she sat herself down.  Briscoe well describes our day when the judgment of God is obscured: “Those who wish to free people from the awesome thought of divine judgment need to remember that they often liberate people into the awful bonds of meaninglessness and emptiness.” The same writer adds: “For if God regards what we do important enough to judge, He certainly must regard what we are as important enough to matter.”3

The Bible promises that there will be a day of wrath for evil men. In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 we are assured that the Lord Jesus will return “in blazing fire with his powerful angels.  He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”  All through the Old Testament and the New Testament, this day of God’s wrath is mentioned.  It is a very prominent theme.  John Calvin comments on this: “The day of the last judgment is called the day of wrath when a reference is made to the ungodly; but it will be a day of redemption to the faithful.”4   Clearly, the early Christians looked forward to this day (Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 2:19; and 2 Tim. 4:8).

In the next verse Paul brings up a subject that has caused a lot of discussion and dissention in the church.  He remarks that: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done’” (2:6).  Here, we have mention of a doctrine that at first sounds quite contrary to the doctrines of grace and faith we hold so dear.  Regarding this discrepancy, Pfeiffer and Harrison remark that “works are always central in the New Testament picture of judgment.” They elaborate on this statement, saying, “The Lord’s recompense to each individual will be according to the man’s works—not according to his privileges. God will judge fairly, whether a man lived under the Mosaic Law or apart from it.”5

How do we reconcile these seemingly diverse themes?  The Bible says with great certainty that we are saved by grace and through faith (Eph. 2:8).  The Bible is also insistent that once a person is saved there is work to be done.  Ephesians 2:10 expresses it: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Although good works do not save us, they are the natural result of a saving experience.   Martin Luther expressed it like this: “It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire.”6 Thus we can see how our works will be judged on the Day of Judgment because these works are the true fruit and evidence of our faith.  Thus the early Christian writers universally reflect the importance of good works in relation to our salvation.  However, they did not believe it possible to gain salvation by good works. 7

Paul continues: To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (2:7-8).  We see the contrast here of those who keep on doing good and those who keep on doing evil. Three prominent characteristics of the latter group are mentioned.  They are self-seekers or selfish; they reject the truth and they follow evil.  This seems quite a summation of the “me generation” we have seen in the last few decades.  Notably it is this generation that has been so prominent in rejecting the concept of ultimate truth.  Truth is now considered something relative that can change with every group or every situation.  The ultimate truth for them is that there is no ultimate truth.  As a result we now have millions of people happily following evil to their certain destruction.

It is much different with the righteous.  They keep on keeping on with their good works.  Barnes notes that “it is the uniform doctrine of the Bible, that none will be saved but those who persevere in a life of holiness.”8

For the wicked there is not just trouble at the judgment, or for the eternity thereafter, but plenty of trouble here on earth.  Paul says: There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile…” (2:9).  God says of the Jews that he will punish them first: “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2).  The Bible is replete with evidence that the evildoer, whether Jew or Gentile, will even be punished here on earth.  In Proverbs 13:15, we read, “…the way of the unfaithful is hard.”  We see that the way of the wicked man is blocked by thorns (Pro. 15:19); and the wicked “…will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes” (Prov. 1:31).  One of the biggest problems with sin is that it has never worked.  It continues to create great hardship for all those who try it.

Paul reaffirms that the righteous will be blessed.  He says there will be “… glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For God does not show favoritism” (2:10-11).  We might wonder seriously about this last verse.  We understand that God has chosen the Jews, but yet we are told that God does not show favoritism.  How can God choose the Jews and not be a respecter of persons?  It is important for us to understand that God has chosen the Jews not to show favoritism but for his own redemptive purposes.  The Jews have suffered terribly for this divine choice and there are many Jewish people today who frankly would like not to be chosen.  They echo the words of Tevye in the famous play Fiddler on the Roof.  After Tevye heard news about an impending persecution, he had another of his little talks with God, complaining to him: “I know, I know we are the chosen people, but once in a while can’t you choose someone else?”

It is clear that sinners will be judged whether they are Gentile sinners or Jewish sinners.  The apostle says: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (2:12).  Indeed, God does not show favoritism.  C.S. Keener points out how Paul is stricter than Judaism at this point.  It is common in Judaism to assume that Gentiles need only to keep the so-called Noahide commandments to be saved and need not concern themselves with anything else.  Here Paul implies that those who have sinned with or without the law will be strictly judged. 9

In the next verse we read: “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (2:13).  This reminds us of James 1:22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”  Wuest mentions that the word for “hearers” is not the usual word which is akouō, but the word akroatēs, which has to do with pupils who hear and are educated in the law.10  It is clear that the law is not some sort of talisman that can deliver those who possess it.

The apostle explains further by way of parenthesis: “(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)” (2:14-15). There are possibly three types of law about which Paul is speaking here.  He is surely speaking of the natural law revealed in the creation.  He spoke of this so-called “general revelation” in chapter 1.  He is clearly speaking of the conscience or the moral law that God has written on every human heart.  It is also possible that he is speaking of God’s laws that are given in human societies through history.  Adam Clarke says: “the Gentiles…had so many wise and wholesome laws; laws which had been among them from time immemorial, and of which they did not know the origin.”11 All these things are part of the general revelation of God to humanity.

Clearly, there are various degrees of judgment reflected here.  Pagans will not be judged by the law of Sinai (special revelation) which was given to the Jews through the mediation of angels (cf. Acts 7:53).  Pagans will certainly be judged by how they dealt with their conscience. Quite a number of ancient writers spoke of this “unwritten law” that was within man and that would point him the right way. 12  Barnes elaborates on this whole subject: “They shall be condemned only according to the knowledge and the law which they actually possess. This is the equitable rule on which God will judge the world. According to this, it is not to be apprehended that they will suffer as much as those who have the revealed will of God… Luke 10:12.” 13

Paul adds: This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (2:16).  It is very clear in scripture that all judgment will ultimately be committed to Jesus Christ the Son of God (cf. Acts 17:32; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5; Jn. 5:22, 27; and Matt. 25:31-46).


Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God;if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law…  Romans 2:17-18

Some scholars have felt that Paul was already bringing charges against the Jews even in the first sixteen verses of this chapter.  Of course, his primary target in these early verses was the moralists among the Gentiles.  It does seem true that Paul was carefully building his case in order that he might later demolish any Jewish claims of righteousness.

There is one thing for certain, from verse 17 onward Paul is most surely bringing charges against the Jews. Here the Jew is singled out by name.  James Edwards remarks: “If Jews could still maintain their confidence after 2:1 ff., all illusion is now dispelled as Paul calls them from their seats in the courtroom, nay, from the jury itself, and summons them to the defendant’s chair.”14

The apostle continues: “…if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth”  (2:19-20).  It is true that the Jew had the wonderful advantage of the law, plus a unique relationship with God through circumcision and the covenants.  But something was obviously missing.  Paul has already spoken of some Gentiles who, not having access to the law, nevertheless did the righteous things contained in the law (cf. 2:14).  He says of these Gentiles that they have the law written on their hearts and consciences (v. 15).  He has also said regarding the Jews that those who merely “hear” the law will not be counted righteous in God’s sight but those who “obey” the law (2:13).

God is looking for something more than mere fleshly symbols.  Circumcision is after all a “sign” of something that must be deeper (Gen. 17:11).  It is very plain in the Bible that God is looking for a circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Acts 7:51).  In effect it was to be a circumcision of the whole person, including things like the ears and the lips (Jer. 6:10; Exo. 6:12).  Paul will spell all this out in more detail later in 2:25-28.

Now Paul levels his charge: “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (2:21). Stealing was specifically legislated against in the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:15).  Yet, there must have been some clear evidence of Jews stealing in Paul’s day.  We know from Malachi 3:8 that Jews in the past had “robbed God” in tithes and offerings.  Perhaps Paul was witness of such “stealing” in his day.  We know that a few years earlier in Jesus’ time they had made the house of God a “den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). However, the stealing here seems to be more directed toward robbing pagan temples (v. 22; cf. Acts 19:37).  It is likely that if people are not afraid to rob in God’s Temple, they would easily do the same in pagan temples if the opportunity were given.  As Stott puts it: “They would not dream of going anywhere near an idol temple thereforeexcept for the purpose of robbery.”15

It is not just a matter of stealing that concerns Paul.  He further charges: “You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (2:22). There is considerable evidence that Jewish people were commonly involved in adultery.  Many centuries before, Hosea the prophet charged Israel with committing a sort of spiritual adultery by forsaking God, their spiritual husband (Hos. 1:2-3; cf. Jer. 3:8). Even the Psalmist (50:18) had charged Israel with these words: “When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.” In Matthew 19:9, we see that the Jews in Jesus’ day were committing adultery by divorcing their wives without just cause.  Also in Matthew 12:39, Jesus apparently regarded the Jewish people of his day as “a wicked and adulterous generation.”

Of course, by the time of Paul’s writing we are a generation or two downstream from Jesus and his teaching.  The Jewish people must surely have been familiar with many of his applications, especially those in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt. 5:28).  C.K. Barrett remarks here: “When theft, adultery, and sacrilege are strictly and radically understood, there is no man who is not guilty of all three.”16

We can see from the whole Bible that the Jews not only of Jesus’ time but of Paul’s time were serious transgressors of their own law. We remember that their latest prophet, John the Baptist, had called them a “brood of vipers” (Lk. 3:7).  Clarke remarks how even the sacred high-priestly office was auctioned off to the highest bidder as any commodity would have been. 17

It seems that Paul doesn’t have a stopping place in cataloging Jewish abuses.  He continues: You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?  As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (2:23-24).  Here the apostle is quoting from Isaiah 52:5 in the Septuagint version of Paul’s day (see also Ezekiel 36:22).  So Israel, who possessed God’s holy law, has not only failed to influence the Gentiles for good, and be a light to the nations, but she has caused Gentiles to blaspheme God by her own wicked conduct.

Paul continues to develop his argument: “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised” (2:25). Stott summarizes Paul’s whole argument concerning Jews and Gentiles simply: “Circumcision minus obedience equals uncircumcision, while uncircumcision plus obedience equals circumcision.” 18

The apostle reflects back on points he had made earlier in verses 14-15.  He goes on to say: If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker (2:26-27).  So, far from the Jew sitting in judgment of the Gentile, we now see the possibility of the Gentile sitting in judgment of the Jew.

God is moving from outward symbols to inward things such as faith, spirit and truth.  In the Book of Acts (10:1-48) we see one such Gentile whose name was Cornelius.  Although he was a Gentile, the Bible affirms that he was nevertheless devout and God-fearing (Acts 10:2).  The angel of God came to him in a vision and ordered him to send to Joppa for Peter.  After Peter’s arrival, Cornelius and a large group of relatives and friends heard the gospel and received the Holy Spirit.  It was the beginning of the gospel’s penetration into the Gentile world.  Cornelius became in a real sense a judgment upon Jews who had heard the same gospel, even from the mouth of their own Messiah, and had refused to accept it.

Now the argument of Paul is stated succinctly: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical” (2:28).  Although this is precisely stated, it is possible to make a huge mistake here if one assumes that all people who are still outwardly Jewish are not Jews at all.  That would immediately remove some thirteen million people out of the “Jewish” category and it would also eliminate Israel as the Jewish nation it claims to be.  The church has already traveled down this anti-Semitic path for the better part of two-thousand years and found it to be both futile and disastrous.

At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul will ask if there is any advantage in being a Jew.  He will answer it, “Much in every way!” (Rom. 3:2). Later in Romans 11:1, Paul will ask and answer the question about the validity of being Jewish in a natural sense: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” There are numerous places in scripture where the eternal covenant with the Jewish people is upheld, even in spite of their disobedience, such as Genesis 17:19; Leviticus 26:44-45; and Jeremiah 31:35-37.

What Paul is saying is that God wants to move all Israel from the natural to the spiritual.  This is what the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is all about.  In this passage God affirms: “…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (31:33).  Jesus came to make it possible for Israel to accomplish this transition and move into the spiritual realm.  He once spoke with a woman in Samaria who had asked him about proper worship.  He replied to her: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (Jn. 4:23).

No, God is not saying that the natural Jewish people are to be rejected or that they no longer exist.  He is rather saying that the natural Jewish people need to be transformed into the spiritual realm.  Jesus once said this in essence to a Jewish leader named Nicodemus.  The Master said to him bluntly, “You must be born again” (Jn. 3:7).  Jesus made it plain in the following section of scripture (3:7-21) that the new birth must come by the Holy Spirit.

The apostle finishes his definition of what a truly Jewish person is to be.  He says: “No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (2:29).  We could certainly say a very similar thing about the Christian who is trusting in physical  things as Robert Brow states: “A person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true baptism something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real baptism is a matter of the heartit is in
the Spirit.”19

When a Jewish person moves into the spiritual realm in life and worship he will not be expecting the praise of men.  His praise will rather come from God.  Originally the word for “Judah” from which “Jew” was taken meant “praise.”  It is likely that there is some word play going back to the Hebrew here. 20  God’s purpose is that the true Jew will be a praise in the earth and before God.


Continue Reading – Chapter 3