3. The Coming Wrath of God: Self-Righteousness Is Unrighteousness (Romans 2:1-29)
When I was growing up our family had a dog, a collie we named Prince. Prince was not a mean dog, but he was very protective of the members of our family. On those rare occasions when Prince felt duty called on him to protect us, he did so in an unusual way. A Doberman pincsher or a German shepherd will likely attack by confronting the intruder face-to-face, snarling and growling with every bound. Being a collie, Prince did not attack from the front. His practice was to come up from behind, very quietly, without giving any notice. The first indication of his presence was the painful sensation of his teeth, sinking into your back side.
In the Book of Galatians, Paul’s approach in his defense of the gospel was that of a Doberman Pincsher. At the very outset of the book, he informed his readers that he was greatly upset and was on the attack. In the first two chapters of the Book of Romans, Paul’s approach is quite different—more like that of our collie. Here, Paul prepares to “attack,” but without letting his reader know what is coming. Suddenly, in the first verses of chapter 2, the “teeth” of Paul’s indictment sink into the reader, catching him completely unprepared.69
The sins of the Gentiles were obvious, even blatant. They openly practiced idolatry, immorality, sexual perversion, and other evils. Jewish sins were less obvious and more devious. Jewish sins were concealed by “fast talk” or “fine print.” They were often justified as acts of righteousness. This is plainly seen in the gospels where our Lord strongly rebuked the Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy.70 The self-righteousness of the Jews made it extremely difficult to convince them of their sinfulness, even though their sins were (in some cases) greater than those of the Gentiles. Because of their “blindness” and “hardness of heart,” Paul found it necessary to catch the Jews off guard by attacking them from behind.
Paul’s attack is skillfully executed in Romans 1 and 2. Beginning at Romans 1:18, Paul set out to show that all men are sinners, based upon their rejection of God’s revelation through His creation (1:18-23). All men can clearly see some of God’s invisible attributes through observing His creation. They can see His “eternal power” and His “divine nature” (1:20). Men should respond to this revelation of God’s nature by honoring Him as God and by giving Him thanks (1:21). Instead of worshipping God and serving Him, men rejected His revelation and became corrupt in their thinking and actions, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator (1:21-23). As a result, God gave them over to sin as a manifestation of His wrath.
God’s present wrath can be seen by the corrupt thinking and behavior to which men have been given over due to their rejection of His revelation (1:24-32). Men have been given over to immorality (1:24-25), to sexual perversion (1:26-27), to a depraved mind and to improper conduct (1:28-32). Those given over by God have become corrupt in both their minds and their morals. Such men not only persist in practicing their sins (knowing that such conduct is worthy of death), they even encourage others to do likewise (1:32).
The self-righteous Jew was so blind to his own sin that he failed to recognize that Paul’s indictment in Romans 1:18-32 was a universal indictment. The revelation of God’s nature through creation was given to the Gentiles and the Jews. The same sins for which Paul indicts the “heathen” are also committed by the Jews. As they read Paul’s words, their minds unconsciously replaced Paul’s general references (which would have included the Jews) with specific references (identifying only the Gentiles). They mistakenly assumed that Paul was in perfect agreement with them. After all, Paul was condemning the Gentiles as sinners, proving them to be worthy of divine wrath and retribution. And to this they could say a hearty, “Amen!” Let the Gentiles be condemned. They deserved it. Little did they expect Paul to turn to them next, indicting them for precisely the same sins. This he does in the second chapter of Romans.
The Importance of Our Text
The second chapter of Romans is vitally important. In this passage Paul must demonstrate the sinfulness of the Jews if he is to validate his conclusion in chapter 3 that “all” (both Jews and Gentiles) “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). The condemnation of the Gentiles is demonstrated by their rejection of God’s self-revelation through His creation (1:18-32). The greater guilt and condemnation of the Jews is evident in their rejection of an even greater revelation of God, not only in nature, but through the Law, and the gospel (see 2:16, 17-20). Paul must show all mankind to be unrighteous and in need of God’s righteousness, in Christ. Proving the self-righteous Jew to be a sinner is Paul’s most challenging task.
Paul’s Jewish readers should be humbled by the words of the apostle, who was also a self-righteous Jew until his conversion (see Philippians 3). Paul’s Gentile readers will also be helped by this indictment of the self-righteous Jew. The “Judaisers” were constantly at work to impose their errors upon the churches (see, for example Acts 15; Galatians; Philippians 3:2ff.; Colossians 2:16ff.; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; Titus 1:10-16). Exposing the errors of Judaism would serve as a preventative, or at least a caution, to the Gentiles to avoid such teaching and practice.
Understanding Paul’s indictment of self-righteous Jews in our text can be a great help in understanding other Scriptures. Paul’s accusations in Romans 2 are but a summation of the indictments of the Old Testament prophets. The mindset of the self-righteous Jew, as described in our text, enables us to understand the constant tension which existed between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus, prominent in all the Gospels. Jesus’ indictments of the self-righteous Jews, recorded in the Gospels, are more easily understood in the light of Paul’s words in our text.
A study of Romans 2 will also dissolve many of the alleged “tensions” between the theology of Paul and that of James. We hear sometimes that Paul emphasized faith while James emphasized works, and that each was stressing one dimension of the truth. When I compare Paul’s words in Romans 2 with those in James 1-3, I find hearty agreement. Paul’s teaching in Romans 2 will underscore and affirm the teaching of James and will stress the importance of good works. What we will find is that it was the self-righteous Jews (and not Paul) who failed to see the importance of good works. The reason for this failure is fascinating and instructive.
No one should take sin more seriously than the Christian. Paul’s indictment of mankind should ring true in our hearts and cause us to see sin in its more subtle forms. In particular, we should see that the sin of self-righteousness is not just a “Jewish sin.” There may be no greater need in the church of Jesus Christ today than that of a deep conviction of sin in our midst. When revival breaks out among God’s people, it usually begins with an eye-opening encounter with the depth of our own sin. Paul’s words here are for self-righteous sinners such as ourselves. As we study Paul’s teaching in Romans 2, our goal will be to identify the nature of the belief and behavior which Paul is condemning as sin. We will also seek to isolate the causes and the cure of the sin of self-righteousness. May God open our hearts to comprehend and to respond to His Word.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).
An Overview of Our Text
Romans 2 must be studied, interpreted, and applied as a whole. The unity of Paul’s argument in chapter 2 can be seen as Paul’s indictment comes full circle in the chapter. At the beginning of the chapter, he indicts the Jews for judging and condemning the Gentiles, while both practice the same sins (see 2:1-2). At the end of the chapter (2:27), Paul informs the Jews (who have been circumcised, but have not obeyed the Law) that they will be judged by the Gentiles (who have not been circumcised, but who have kept God’s Law).
Paul’s indictment of the self-righteous in chapter 2 is a “two punch” argument. In verses 1-16, Paul proves the Jews are guilty of sin, based on their own standard, as seen in their judging of others. In verses 17-29, Paul exposes the sin of the Jews, as seen in their teaching of others. Thus, by their judging and by their teaching, the Jews are shown to be guilty of sin.
God’s Judgment on Those Who Judge (2:1-16)
1 Therefore you are without excuse,71 every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. 3 And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who WILL RENDER TO EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS:72 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
11 For there is no partiality with God. 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 not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
The arrangement of these verses above suggests my understanding of Paul’s argument in verses 1-16. Verses 1 and 2 contain the indictment: “You Jews are guilty of violating the same standard by which you have condemned the Gentiles.” Verses 3 and 4 are both questions. Paul suggests two issues which the Jews have neglected to think through carefully. Verses 5-10 establish the standard for man’s conduct by which God judges men, to reward the righteous or to condemn the sinner. Verses 11-16 focus on God’s impartiality, which is evident in His judgment of men. We might summarize Paul’s argument in verses 1-16 this way:
Jewish judges—judged for hypocrisy
God, the Judge, and His coming judgment
Man’s deeds—the basis for divine judgment
Impartiality—the distinctive of divine judgment
Paul’s indictment, in verses 1 and 2, is stated in general terms. It is an indictment which does not condemn men by “class” (Jew or Gentile) but rather by conduct. All who judge others guilty of sin, and who practice the same sins, are themselves guilty, based upon their own actions. It just so happens that many (if not most) of those thus judged are self-righteous Jews. As the chapter proceeds, Paul’s focus becomes more and more directed toward the Jews, who felt smugly superior to the Gentiles and who eagerly condemned them as sinners.
Those who enthusiastically condemned the Gentile “heathen” as sinners, on the basis of Paul’s argument in 1:18-32, were self-condemned. They practiced the very same things which they condemned in others (2:1, 2, 3). The words of our Lord certainly apply to Paul’s readers:
“Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).
Did the Jews really sin in the same way as the Gentiles? Were the Jews guilty of immorality, sexual impurity and perversion, idolatry, robbery, and even murder? The answer is a clear and undeniable, “Yes!” The historical accounts of Israel’s past actions prove Paul’s accusations to be true (see, for example, Exodus 32 and Numbers 25). The Old Testament prophets indicted the Jews of old for the same sins that Paul names in Romans 1. Consider these texts:
My soul waits in silence for God only; From Him is my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken. How long will you assail a man, That you may murder him, all of you, Like a leaning wall, like a tottering fence? They have counseled only to thrust him down from his high position; They delight in falsehood; They bless with their mouth, But inwardly they curse. Selah.
My soul, wait in silence for God only, For my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, My stronghold; I shall not be shaken. On God my salvation and my glory rest; The rock of my strength, my refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. Selah.
Men of low degree are only vanity, and men of rank are a lie; In the balances they go up; They are together lighter than breath. Do not trust in oppression, And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them. Once God has spoken; Twice I have heard this: That power belongs to God; And lovingkindness is Thine, O Lord, For Thou dost recompense a man according to his work (Psalm 62:1-12, emphasis mine).73
How the faithful city has become a harlot, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, But now murderers. Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Every one loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them” (Isaiah 1:21-23, emphasis mine).
Woe to those who enact evil statutes, And to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice, And rob the poor of My people of their rights, In order that widows may be their spoil, And that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, And in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3, emphasis mine).
“Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD (Jeremiah 7:8-11, emphasis mine).
“You have despised My holy things and profaned My sabbaths. Slanderous men have been in you for the purpose of shedding blood, and in you they have eaten at the mountain shrines. In your midst they have committed acts of lewdness. In you they have uncovered their fathers’ nakedness; in you they have humbled her who was unclean in her menstrual impurity. And one has committed abomination with his neighbor’s wife, and another has lewdly defiled his daughter-in-law. And another in you has humbled his sister, his father’s daughter. In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,” declares the Lord GOD. “Behold, then, I smite My hand at your dishonest gain which you have acquired and at the bloodshed which is among you.”
“Son of man, say to her, ‘You are a land that is not cleansed or rained on in the day of indignation.’ There is a conspiracy of her prophets in her midst, like a roaring lion tearing the prey. They have devoured lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows in the midst of her. Her priests have done violence to My law and have profaned My holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they hide their eyes from My sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. Her princes within her are like wolves tearing the prey, by shedding blood and destroying lives in order to get dishonest gain. And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,’ when the LORD has not spoken. The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice” (Ezekiel 22:8-13, 24-29, emphasis mine).
Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, For the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. … Gilead is a city of wrongdoers, Tracked with bloody footprints. And as raiders wait for a man, So a band of priests murder on the way to Shechem; Surely they have committed crime. In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing; Ephraim’s harlotry is there, Israel has defiled itself. Also, O Judah, there is a harvest appointed for you, When I restore the fortunes of My people (Hosea 4:1-2; 6:8-11 emphasis mine).
On the other hand I am filled with power—With the Spirit of the LORD—And with justice and courage To make known to Jacob his rebellious act, Even to Israel his sin. Now hear this, heads of the house of Jacob And rulers of the house of Israel, Who abhor justice And twist everything that is straight, Who build Zion with bloodshed And Jerusalem with violent injustice. Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe, Her priests instruct for a price, And her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the LORD saying, “Is not the LORD in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us.” Therefore, on account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, And the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest (Micah 3:8-12, emphasis mine).74
Not only do the Old Testament Scriptures prove that Paul’s accusations were accurate concerning the Jews of Old, the New Testament Scriptures indicate that the Jews of Jesus’ and Paul’s day were guilty of the same sins. In Matthew 23, our Lord charged the scribes and Pharisees with hypocrisy (23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), stealing (23:14, 25), murder (23:31, 34, 37), self-indulgence (23:25) and lawlessness (23:28). Furthermore, Paul’s list of Old Testament indictments in Romans 3:10-18 is applied to the Jews of his day, to show that they were guilty of just such sins:
As it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE. THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING, THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS; WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS; THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, AND THE PATH OF PEACE HAVE THEY NOT KNOWN. THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES” (Romans 3:10-18).
The minds of the self-righteous Jews were as darkened by their sin and rejection of God’s revelation as were the minds of the Gentiles. In verses 3 and 4 Paul draws attention to two major problems in the thinking of the Jews. He challenges those who would listen to consider their folly. First, did they really think that God would judge Gentile sinners for their sins and not judge the Jews for the same sins (verse 3)? How does a righteous God condemn the unrighteousness of some, but not all men, if they both practice the same sins? Second, would they disdain and disregard God’s kindness, failing to see it as His grace, calling them to repentance (verse 4)? They erred in seeing God’s wrath as focused only on the “heathen” and in viewing God’s reprieve as a reward for their righteousness, rather than as the opportunity for their repentance.
In verses 5-10 Paul establishes the basis on which divine judgment is meted out by God. God judges men according to their works. Paul makes several important statements about men’s works, which are the basis for divine judgment:
(1) Man’s deeds are the result of what is in his heart (verse 5, see also verse 8).75
(2) God’s judgment will be according to man’s deeds (verse 6).
(3) God’s judgment of men, according to their deeds, includes both Jews and Gentiles (verse 9-10).
(4) God’s judgment of men, according to their deeds, is both for blessing and for punishment (verses 7-10).
The possibility of a man being declared righteous on the basis of his own works is mentioned here, but it is only hypothetical as Paul will demonstrate. There is no problem here with Paul speaking of men being rewarded with eternal life for their (own) righteousness, because no man will ever attain this high standard of conduct. No man’s good works are ever sufficient to save him, but every man’s sinful works are sufficient to condemn him.
Just as the self-righteous have judged the “heathen” to be sinners on the basis of their works, so God judges the “righteous” by their works, and they fail the test. The self-righteous fail to live up to the standard which they require of others. And thus, while these “judges” are right in concluding that those they judge are sinners, they are foolish not to see themselves as sinners as well. When the standard for judgment is a man’s works, every man fails to meet the standard.
The problem with the self-righteous is that they had a double standard. They did not use the same standard to judge their own conduct as they did to condemn others. The self-righteous were banking on God judging them with partiality, according to a different standard. Thus, after stressing the standard for God’s judgment in verses 5-10, Paul moves to the impartiality of divine judgment in verses 11-16. God not only judges men on the basis of their works (verses 5-10), He judges them impartially, on the basis of what they do with what they know (verses 11-16).
The Jews thought that their possession of the Law placed them in a separate category, one which was higher than that of the Gentiles. Paul sets out to prove that the mere possession of the Law is not what matters, but the practice of the Law. The Jews, by virtue of their possession of the Law, were not thereby deserving of God’s blessings. The Gentiles, by virtue of the fact that they did not possess the Law, were not thereby deserving of God’s wrath. Having the Law did not make one holy, any more than not having it made one a sinner.
God is impartial. He does not judge men on the basis of who they are (Jew or Gentile). He judges men on the basis of what they have done (deeds) with what they have been given (revelation). It is not the possession of God’s standards which makes men holy, but living in obedience to these standards. Conversely, men are condemned for rejecting the revelation of God which they have received.
Those who possess the Law—the Jews—are judged in terms of their obedience to the Law. The Gentiles, who did not receive the Law, are judged according to that which they know to be right and wrong. The Jews can thereby be judged by their obedience to the objective standard of the Law, while the Gentiles are judged by their obedience to the subjective standard. Only God knows the hearts of the Gentiles, and thus only He can judge them. This is an indictment against the Jews, who would judge the Gentiles by their Law (even though they had not received it), but would not judge themselves by it (even though they had received it).
God’s Judgment on Those Who Teach (2:17-29)
17 But if you bear the name “Jew,” and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind,76 a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, 21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For “THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU,”77 just as it is written.
25 For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And will not 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? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
Paul’s indictment now becomes pointed and specific. He is clearly referring to the Jews. Verses 17-20 describe the perspective of the self-righteous Jew, especially as it relates to their possession of the Law. Verses 21-24 contain Paul’s indictment: they fail to practice what they preach and teach. In verses 25-29 Paul clarifies the value and significance of circumcision, concluding by pointing out that “true circumcision” is not an external matter, but a matter of the heart. We can outline the argument of verses 17-29 this way.
(1) The Law and the Proud Jew (vv. 17-24)
(2) Circumcision and the “True Jew” (vv. 25-29)
In verses 17-20, Paul describes the self-righteous pride which the Jew found in his possession of the Law. The Law was one of the “badges” of piety which the Jew proudly wore. Possession of the Law led the Jew to conclude that he was superior to a Gentile. The description of verses 17-20 is not a picture of reality; it is a caricature of the puffed-up Jew and his distorted perception of his own superiority.
The self-righteous Jew thought of himself as one who relied upon the Law. As such, he boasted in God. Possession of the Law somehow gave the Jew a privileged relationship with God, with a resulting assurance of His protection and blessing (verse 18). Possessing God’s Law also gave the Jew an inside track on knowing the will of God. He knew the mind of God, His plans and purposes (the Gentiles, of course, did not). He had a grasp of what really mattered, guided as he was by the Law (verse 18). The Law gave the Jew the edge, superiority, and thus he was capable of leading the blind and of guiding those with less illumination—those who were still “in the dark” (verse 19). The Law gave the Jew the superior knowledge necessary for teaching the uninformed and the immature. The Law was, for the Jew, the embodiment of all knowledge and truth (verse 20). The possession of it put one above all others.
Paul was not impressed with what the Jew thought of himself. He did not deny that the Law was a great source of truth, wisdom, and guidance, for so it was (see Psalm 119, especially verses 97-100). The real issue was not the virtue of the Law and its precepts, as taught by the Jew, but the Law as practiced by the Jew. It was not the possession of the Law which made one righteous. It was not even the teaching of the Law which made one righteous. Righteousness (according to the standard set out in the Law itself and by Paul in verses 5-16) was the result of keeping the Law. It mattered not if one taught that it was wrong to steal, to commit adultery, or to worship idols. It mattered only that one obeyed the Law by refraining from these sins. If the Jew did not keep the Law, it would only condemn him.
It is implied by Paul’s questions that these “teachers of the Law” did not keep the Law themselves. The result was that rather than glorifying God and demonstrating His righteousness, these disobedient Jews dishonored God, blaspheming His name before the Gentiles. Did the Jews foolishly suppose that the Law made them better than the Gentiles? Their rejection of God’s Law made God look bad before the Gentiles.
Paul cites a passage from the Old Testament which expresses this reality and which also shows that Israel’s disregard for the Law is in keeping with the “stiff-necked nature” of this “stubborn and rebellious people” (see Romans 2:5): “For ‘THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU,’ just as it is written” (Romans 2:24).
This quotation can be traced back to several Old Testament texts, including Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:20-21. In both cases, God is mocked by the Gentiles on account of Israel’s disregard for and disobedience of the Law. They have been cast out of the land of Israel and have been sent into captivity. The Gentiles were chuckling to themselves because the Israelites’ God appears to be unable to give them the land He promised them. They do not know that God disciplines His people for their disobedience. God’s deliverance of His captive people would be for the sake of His name, not on account of the Jew’s piety or faithfulness (see Ezekiel 36:22-24).
The present condition of the Jews was also a reproach to the name of God. They professed to believe in God’s Law, and they were proud to “possess” it, but they did not practice it. Far worse, when they were confronted by the “Living Word,” the “incarnate Word,” Jesus Christ, they rejected God’s final revelation, putting Him to death (see John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; 1 John 1:1-3). Paul’s reference to this quotation from the Old Testament may have been a veiled warning, for this disobedient people would once again be thrust out of the land, and God’s name would be, for a season, blasphemed among the Gentiles.
Circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (see Genesis 17:9-14; Exodus 4:24-26). After this, circumcision was mentioned only casually in the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus 12:44, 48; Leviticus 12:3). But for the Jew, circumcision was a mark of distinction. It was that which distinguished the Jew from the heathen. Consequently, the Jews took great pride in circumcision. Because circumcision was linked with the self-righteousness of the Jews, Paul used this rite to clinch the point he was making—that the Law was not only to be possessed, professed, and proclaimed; it was to be practiced.
Circumcision identified a man as a Jew. It was, as it were, a physical profession that one was a Jew. This profession of circumcision had no value unless it was backed up by the practice of the professor. For one to demonstrate by his practice that he was indeed a Jew made his profession by circumcision a valid distinction. Otherwise, circumcision was of as little value as placing a Mercedes Benz hood ornament on a broken down Volkswagen.
Disobedience to the Law nullified any value which circumcision might have had.78 Obedience to the Law made circumcision of value. A circumcised Jew who did not keep the Law was no better than a Gentile. The converse was also true. If a Gentile were to live in accordance with the Law (even though he might not possess it or know its demands), his lack of circumcision was no detriment. Practice of the Law’s requirements was all that was needed, and such a Law-keeper was as good as circumcised.
Startling though they might be, Paul has strong words for the self-righteous Jew. Did they think their role in life was to look down upon the Gentiles and to use the Law to condemn them? While God would judge or justify Gentiles apart from the Law, an uncircumcised Gentile who kept the Law would judge the disobedient Jew (verse 27). The self-righteous Jew was to be judged by an uncircumcised Gentile, whom he condemned, but whom God would justify on the basis of his obedience to the Law.79
The only circumcision that counts is the inner “circumcision” of the heart. The “true Jew” is the one whose heart has been circumcised. This “surgery” is not that which is performed by man, but by the Holy Spirit. And the praise which results is not the praise of men, but of God. This is that circumcision spoken of by Moses and the prophets (see Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-27).
How could the Jews be so wrong? How could those who were given so many privileges and who were so often blessed by God stray so far from Him? How could those who were given the revelation of the Law, and now Paul’s gospel (see 2:16), become so completely off base in their thinking? The sin and resulting condemnation of the Jews as described here in Romans 2 is the result of several serious errors. As we conclude this lesson, I wish to focus on the major errors which I find evidenced and exposed in our text. Each of these errors has its own contemporary forms, and thus they plague us, as well as those to whom Paul was referring.
If there is one term which sums up the sin of the Jews, it is probably the term “hypocrisy.” The Jews were hypocritical in holding to a double standard. They held a very high standard for others (especially the Gentiles) by which they condemned them as sinners. But at the same time they held a much lower standard for themselves, which excused them from the same sins committed by the Gentiles. The Jews were also hypocritical in redefining their sins in such a way as to make them appear to be pious acts of religious devotion. I believe this was true of the way in which they went about “stealing widows’ houses” (Matthew 23:14) and in which they converted the temple precincts into a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13). They placed too much emphasis on external appearances and not enough on the heart.
There is a big difference between a “heathen” and a hypocrite. The heathen rejects high standards of conduct and lives (unhypocritically) as a pagan. The hypocrite holds to the high standard but does not live by it, and thus he has double standards and lives a double life. Hypocrisy is often an ailment of the religious.
God’s holiness was the basis for Israel’s holiness. God revealed Himself to Israel when He delivered them from Egyptian slavery. After He had led them through the Red Sea, God gave His people the Law. This Law was, first and foremost, a declaration of God’s character, of His attributes (a much fuller revelation of His attributes than His creation supplies—see Romans 1:18-23). Israel’s privilege, as God’s chosen people, was to demonstrate God’s character to others. Prominent among His attributes is God’s holiness. Israel’s responsibility, as God’s people, was to live their lives in accordance with God’s Law, so as to demonstrate His holiness to the world: “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:15).
God’s holiness was to be evident in the lives of His people, not just by what they professed but by what they practiced. Israel was to be a “priestly nation” (Exodus 19:5-6), whose task was to point men to God. They were not to be a nation of judges, who condemned the sins of those about them. Any condemnation or judgment should be the result of their personal godliness. Holiness was not to be a matter of “lip-service” but of lifestyle.
For the Israelite of old, and for the Christian of today, obedience to God’s revealed standard of conduct is necessary for the demonstration of God’s holiness in the midst of a sinful, unholy world (see 1 Peter 1:15). In the Old Testament and the New, God has prohibited certain conduct, because it is sinful and unholy. He has likewise commanded us to practice godly conduct, because it is holy. Our good works will never be sufficient to make us righteous or to win God’s approval. Our failure to produce good works is, however, sufficient basis for condemnation. When we are justified by faith, we are saved “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), because God’s purpose in saving men (in part) is to manifest His righteousness to the world through His saints. Holy conduct is necessary for God’s people to manifest God’s holy character. Israel’s sins (and ours) blaspheme the character of God before men (see Romans 2:24).
A mere profession of faith is not enough. A genuine profession of faith should be accompanied by good works, not as the basis of our salvation but as a result of it. John the Baptist called upon the Jews to demonstrate the genuineness of their repentance and faith by producing “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). James, in his epistle, demanded that a profession of faith must be accompanied by good works as the evidence of genuine faith (see James 2:14-26, etc.). Our Lord also required “fruit” as the result of true faith and as a manifestation of His presence and power:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another” (John 15:12-17, emphasis mine).
The apostle John, likewise, expected love to be evidenced not only by words, but by works:
Do not marvel brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s good, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:13-18).
The self-righteous Jews were in error concerning divine judgment. They were wrong in failing to distinguish between God’s present wrath and His coming (future) wrath. One purpose of God’s present wrath is repentance, leading to salvation. The primary purpose of His future wrath is retribution. There is no turning back from this judgment. Future wrath spells the sinner’s doom; present wrath may produce the sinner’s repentance and salvation. Thus, to look upon those whom God has “given over to sin” as reprobates, who are eternally doomed, is just as incorrect as looking upon those who are presently experiencing God’s “kindness” as assured of eternal blessing. For now, both God’s kindness and His severity are directed toward man’s salvation, not his destruction.
The righteous yearn for righteousness to reign upon the earth and for sin to be removed from the world. The righteous desire to see justice prevail, which includes the punishment of the wicked. On the other hand, the righteous also recognize their own sin and realize that they are worthy of divine wrath. They know, as well, that God’s present judgment of sin is welcome, because it delivers the sinner from God’s final, future wrath. And thus the sinner prays for his sins to be exposed, condemned, and removed through God’s grace. For the Christian, divine wrath is welcomed, not just so that others will be punished, but so that we will be purified (see Psalm 19:7-14; 51; 119, etc.).
Failing to understand God’s present purposes (both with regard to the Gentiles and with regard to the Jews) led the self-righteous Jews to a wrong conception of their duty and obligation toward other sinners. They seemed to think their task in life was to condemn, to judge sinners as guilty, and to write them off for all eternity. Israel’s God-given task was to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23). They were first to receive the good news of the gospel by faith, and then to bear the good news to the lost. But the self-righteous Jews, typified by the prophet Jonah, did not want to be a part of saving Gentile sinners.
Contrast the eagerness of the Jews to judge “sinners” with the teaching and practice of our Lord. He repeatedly stated that He did not come into the world (in His first coming) to judge men but to save them (see John 3:17; 8:15; 12:47-48). When Jesus was put on the spot to pronounce judgment and execute the sentence of death upon a woman caught in the act of adultery, He refused, not because she was innocent, but because He came to die for her sins—to save sinful men and women like her (see John 8:10-11). Condemnation and salvation are two opposite activities. We, like our Lord, are to presently occupy ourselves with the latter, and to leave the former to Him, in His good time.
Jesus took on the self-righteous “judges” of Israel, many of whom were the scribes and Pharisees, at the outset of His earthly ministry. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount illustrates this clearly.80 Jesus began by emphasizing the “hidden world” of the spirit, in 5:3-9. In the remainder of Matthew 5, Jesus sought to show that sin is “more than skin deep.” Sin has its external manifestations, but it also has its internal roots. The internal, unseen sins of the heart are just as evil as the outward manifestations. Thus, murder is not only sin (the external act), but so is anger (the internal source of murder). Adultery (outward) is sin, but so is lust (internal).
In Matthew 6, Jesus went on to teach that righteousness is “more than skin deep.” External acts of “righteousness” may only be men-pleasing deeds, designed to obtain man’s praise (6:1). The giving of alms (6:2-4), praying (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18) can all be motivated by sinful desires, and not by the desire to please God. Righteousness, therefore, cannot be judged only on the basis of the outward act, but must also take into account the motivation of the heart.
No wonder Matthew 7 begins with our Lord’s warning about judging others. If men cannot know the hearts of other men (or their own hearts), how can they judge that which is righteous and that which is not? Judging others sets the standard for our own judgment, by God. The only way that men can see clearly is to be judged by God and to have their own sin exposed and remedied. This will not enable us to know the hearts and motives of men, and to make those judgments which only God can make, but it will help us see clearly enough to know those who are “dogs” and “swine” (7:6), so that we do not waste that which is holy on those who disdain it.
Being righteous, God must judge sin. Being righteous, God must judge sin righteously. Thus, He must judge sin impartially.81 There is no partiality with God, Paul teaches. The Jews simply did not believe it. They held to a double standard because they thought God judged men by a double standard. The Jews judged the Gentiles by a standard which they did not apply to themselves. This became the basis for Paul’s indictment in Romans 2:1-16. If God judges impartially, then God will judge us by the same standard which He uses to judge others. If God judges us by the standard we hold for others, we must meet that same standard.
The Jews did not want God to deal with them impartially. They wanted preferential treatment from Him. Impartiality would put the Jews on the same level as everyone else, and they wanted to be superior to the rest. I remember talking to a “lifer” in a maximum security prison who was not a Christian. I asked how he liked prison life after various prison reforms had been instituted. He replied that he liked the old way better. He could manipulate the old system so that he would be given preferential treatment; now he was treated like everyone else. Israel too wanted preferential treatment. God’s judgment is, however, impartial. His standards do not change.82
The Jews also misunderstood the grace of God. They did not see God’s present wrath as gracious, leading some to repentance. Neither did they recognize their present reprieve from punishment as a gift of God’s grace, leading them to repentance (see Romans 2:4). Perhaps the greatest error of the Jews was that they mistook the privileges of God as an evidence of His preference.
It is this confusion over privilege and preference which is the key to understanding the hypocrisy of the Jews. The Jews had a double standard for judging because they confused their privileged status with a preferential status. They believed God judged them differently than others. They thought that who they were was more important than what they did. Since they thought that merely being a Jew made them holy, there was no other standard of holiness which needed to be applied to them. The Gentiles, however, had to earn their holiness, by keeping the Law.
Let me seek to illustrate this. Have you ever worked, as I have, for a business where the owner’s son was a fellow-employee? All too often, the owner’s son regards himself as a special case. If the standard for performance is putting out 30 pieces of work an hour, he will hold you to it, but may not be concerned if he only puts out 15 pieces per hour. He may say to himself, “It doesn’t matter whether I work hard or not. I’m the boss’s son. Dad won’t fire me.” The “privilege” of being the owner’s son distorts this worker’s thinking and behavior, supposing that he can live by a different standard than the rest. That was Israel’s attitude. They were the chosen people of God. They had an “inside track” with God, and they also possessed the Law. This made them better than the Gentiles. While the Gentile must live within the Law, the Jew was above the Law.
Congress has provided us with additional illustrations of this evil. During the Reagan administration, Congress passed a massive tax reform bill. The purpose of this new law was to “close the loopholes” which were in the previous tax laws. Many of the loopholes were closed, but that very legislation contains, I am told, many exceptions and exemptions which are for the exclusive benefit of a very few people—all of whom are friends or supporters of one of the politicians who had a hand in writing the law. The same is true of the civil rights reforms which Congress has recently passed. Can anyone explain why Congress would forbid racial discrimination by all employers except themselves? Congress, I am told, has exempted itself from living under the law it passed. That is hypocrisy! That is a double standard. That is thinking of yourself as a special case. That is the abuse of one’s privileges.
When it came to their own standing before God, many of the Jewish religious leaders were not legalists but hypocrites. They believed God would deal with them according to a different standard because of who they were, and because they were better than the rest. That is not only hypocrisy; that is arrogance.
The gospel will simply not allow men to place themselves above other men. The gospel is the great equalizer of all men. The gospel finds all men equal in their lost condition, and the gospel makes all men equally righteous, in Christ. This is exactly what offends the status-seeker. To deny this fundamental equality among men is to deny the gospel.83
Such pride of the self-righteous Jews is also found among the Gentiles, even among those who have been saved by grace. And thus the warning of Paul in Romans 11:17-21. Whatever we are, whatever blessings from God we have received, whatever privileges have been granted to us, all are the gifts of God’s grace. They do not prove us to be better than other men. They do not place us in a special category which receives preferential treatment from God. If anything, privileges bring greater responsibility on our part. The privilege of possessing the Law did not make Israel less obliged to keep it; it gave them greater obligation to live by it. Of those to whom much is given, much is required (see Luke 12:48; James 3:1).
In the light of Paul’s words in Romans 2 we can say that the response of the Jews to the revelation they received was the same as the response of the Gentiles to the revelation which they had received. Whether through the creation or the Law, God’s revelation was a revelation of His character. It was intended to demonstrate His righteousness, His power, His eternal nature. The only legitimate response to such revelation is man’s humble response of giving Him thanks and praise, through our worship and service. This the Gentiles did not do, and thus they were brought under God’s condemnation. They perverted God’s revelation and began to worship in a way that was self-serving. As a result, God gave them over to sin, as a present manifestation of His judgment.
The Jews were guilty of the same sin, but in even greater measure. The Law revealed God’s character much more fully. It also spelled out the conduct and worship which God required of those who were chosen to serve and glorify Him. The Jews did not give thanks to Him nor did they glorify Him by keeping His commandments. They also perverted His revelation. Instead of seeing the Law as a standard for personal holiness, they used it only as a standard for judging others. And instead of seeking to serve and worship God, they turned Judaism into a self-serving religion. They become proud, not humble. They spurned His revelation, rather than to obey it.
How much more responsible are we who have the full revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures? We are indeed “without excuse” in that we cannot plead ignorance to His standards and His commands. And yet, we, like the Jews, are more inclined to use the Bible to prove how sinful others are than to see our own sin. Christian activism may be called for in this sinful age. But the principle way we are to condemn the sins of our society is not by pronouncing judgment upon it, like the Jews, but by living godly lives, as God called Israel to do. It is our personal holiness which must effectively display the righteousness of God and which reproves sinful men (see 1 Peter 2:11-12; 4:1-19).
I do not believe Christianity has ever been more self-seeking and self-serving than it is in our own day. We do not seem to respond to God’s revelation in the Scriptures with worship and adoration, but we look to the Scriptures to make us happy, prosperous, and fulfilled. We have lost sight of the primary goal of His revelation. Does our knowledge of His Word turn us toward God, in selfless praise, adoration, and service, or does it turn us inward, seeking our own selfish desires? How easy it is to see the sins of others and to fail to see our own.
Paul’s words in Romans 2 come to life as I read our Lord’s indictment of the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 23. In the first verses of His indictment (23:1-4), Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of “seating themselves in the chair of Moses” (verse 2). That is, they assumed a position of authority, as teachers and judges. It was not what they taught which Jesus chose to differ with so strongly, but the hypocrisy with which they taught it. He urged the people to do what these leaders taught, but not to imitate their practice (verse 3). Their teaching laid heavy burdens on others, but they themselves did not live by their own teaching nor did they give any help to those so burdened (verse 4). They were hypocritical.
These leaders did not possess any authority on the basis of their own obedience to the Law (or their teaching of it), but on the basis of other factors such as external appearances. They were constantly “putting on a pious face” by their external garb, by their public appearances, and by taking places of prominence (verses 5-7). Jesus warned His followers of the danger of setting up leaders who held such authority. Establishing human leaders who live above the Law was dangerous and forbidden:
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-12).
The preoccupation of the scribes and Pharisees with their own authority was revealing and condemning. They aspired to positions of authority, so that they might rise above the Law and its requirements, and in so doing they were sinning. Such positions, Jesus taught, should not exist.84 Like their leaders, the self-righteous Jews began to think of themselves in this lofty, elevated way (see Romans 2:17-20). This is not the mind of Christ.
As I have considered the relationship between authority and the Word of God, I have come to recognize an important principle: Those who are preoccupied with having authority tend to place themselves above the authority of the Scriptures; those who see themselves as under the authority of God and His Word are those who exercise the greatest authority.
Many of David’s greatest deeds took place at those times when he was not conscious of having authority but was overcome by a sense of God’s authority. How many of David’s psalms, I wonder, were written as a young lad, a lowly shepherd boy? The defeat of Goliath was the result of David’s faith in God, even though he was no match for this giant. When David became the king of Israel and seemed to be impressed by his own authority, he got into the worst trouble of his life. He stayed at home (in bed), rather than going to battle with his army (2 Samuel 11:1-2). Was he now so powerful that he did not need to go to war? Had his authority become so great that he could defeat his enemies from his bed? Did he possess so much authority that the Word of God no longer applied to him, as it did to others? So it would seem.
Even the authority of our Lord was the result of His sense of being under God’s authority (see John 7:28; 8:42). In particular, I would like to suggest that His authority in teaching the Scriptures was based upon His sense of being under them, not above them. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, the people took note of the difference in Jesus’ teaching compared to that of the scribes:
The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).
Matthew is not speaking of a kind of dogmatism here, for the scribes possessed plenty of that. I believe Jesus taught the Scriptures as the basis and source of one’s authority. Further, I believe He taught the Scriptures with the deep conviction that they not only had authority over His audience, but over Him.
The basis of our Lord’s authority, as referred to in Matthew 7, can be found in Matthew 4. In his efforts to tempt our Lord, Satan sought to persuade Jesus to act independently on His own authority, as the Son of God, rather than in submission to God’s authority. Satan used the Scriptures (by twisting them) to attempt to shore up his evil propositions, but our Lord saw through this. Each time Jesus was tempted, He responded with Scripture, and each time His response to Satan revealed His sense of the authority of the Scriptures.
To our Lord, obedience to the Scriptures was more important than bread, because the Scriptures are the source of true life (Matthew 4:3-4). To our Lord, the Scriptures were not given to men so they could put God to the test, but they were given by God to test them (4:5-7). To our Lord, His purpose in life must not be self-serving. The Word of God revealed to Him that one’s life is to be spent in worshipping and serving God (4:8-10). The authority our Lord evidenced in His teaching of the Word was the result of His own submission to the authority of the Word. God’s Word must, first of all, have authority over us. When we use the Word of God with authority, we use the Word of God as those under its authority. If this was true of our Lord Himself, how much more so should it be true of us?
When I look at the Psalms, I do not find the psalmists viewing God’s Law as the basis for judging others, but as the means by which God judges them. If they see in the Law the character of God, they see also their own sinfulness. But they see as well the grace of God and His provision of righteousness and forgiveness. To the psalmists, the Law not only revealed and condemned their sins, it held forth the means of their salvation.
Notice the response of David to the revelation of God through His creation and through His Word, as recorded in Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands, Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterance to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat. The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I shall be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19).
How different is David’s attitude and response to the Word of God. He does not use the Law of God to prove his own righteousness and to condemn sinners. Instead, he reads the Law to discover his own sinfulness and to find, as well, God’s gracious provision of salvation and forgiveness. And then, instead of condemning other sinners, he shares with them that grace which he has found in God’s Holy Word.
This same spirit toward God and His Word can be seen in the words of the unnamed psalmist who penned Psalm 119. Note the first few verses of this Psalm:
How blessed are those whose way is blameless, Who walk in the law of the LORD. How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, Who seek Him with all their heart. They also do no unrighteousness; They walk in His ways. Thou hast ordained Thy precepts, That we should keep them diligently. Oh that my ways may be established To keep Thy statutes! Then I shall not be ashamed When I look upon all Thy commandments. I shall give thanks to Thee with uprightness of heart When I learn Thy righteous judgments. I shall keep Thy statues; Do not forsake me utterly! How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Thy word. With all my heart I have sought Thee; Do not let me wander from Thy commandments. Thy word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against Thee. Blessed are Thou, O LORD; Teach me Thy statutes. With my lips I have told of All the ordinances of Thy mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, As much as in all riches. I will meditate on Thy precepts, And regard Thy ways. I shall delight in Thy statutes; I shall not forget Thy word. Deal bountifully with Thy servant, That I may live and keep Thy word. Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Thy law. I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Thy commandments from me. My soul is crushed with longing After Thine ordinances at all times. Thou dost rebuke the arrogant, the cursed, Who wander from Thy commandments. Take away reproach and contempt from me, For I observe Thy testimonies. Even though princes sit and talk against me, Thy servant meditates on Thy statutes. Thy testimonies also are my delight; They are my counselors. My soul cleaves to the dust; Revive me according to Thy word. I have told of my ways, and Thou hast answered me; Teach me Thy statutes. Make me understand the way of Thy precepts, So I will meditate on Thy wonders. My soul weeps because of grief; Strengthen me according to Thy word. Remove the false way from me, And graciously grant me Thy law. I have chosen the faithful way; I have placed Thine ordinances before me. I cleave to Thy testimonies; O LORD, do not put me to shame! I shall run the way of Thy commandments, For Thou wilt enlarge my heart (Psalm 119:1-32).
The psalmist holds to the standard of holiness which God’s Law requires (verses 1-4), and yet he learns from the Law his own sinfulness (verses 5-8). The Law is not used to prove the psalmist’s righteousness and to condemn others as sinners. The Law is seen by the psalmist as the revelation of God Himself and of every man’s sinfulness. The Law reveals not only man’s sin, but God’s grace. The Law is a treasure, a delight, which should be shared with other sinners.
To sum up this matter of one’s perspective toward the Scriptures, allow me to conclude by referring to the words of James, in the first chapter of his epistle:
This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does (James 1:19-25).
To use the analogy which James has suggested, the self-righteous Jews of Paul’s day (as well as the self-righteous “saints” of our own) should not think of the Word of God as a magnifying glass, but as a mirror. Those who would rather judge others take up God’s Word as a magnifying glass and go about in Sherlock Holmes fashion inspecting the lives of others, condemning them for the sins they find.
The Word of God was meant to be a mirror, to reveal our own sins, even more than it was meant to be a magnifying glass, to discern the sins of others.85 So it was to the psalmists of Old. So it is to the saints of every age. So it should and must be to us.
Establish my footsteps in Thy word, And do not let any iniquity have dominion over me. … I hope for Thy salvation, O LORD, And do Thy commandments. My soul keeps Thy testimonies, And I love them exceedingly (Psalm 119:133, 166, 167).
69 Paul’s indictment of the self-righteous in Romans 1 and 2 is similar to that of Nathan, the prophet, when he indicted David for adultery and murder. For the full account of David’s sin and the rebuke of Nathan, read 2 Samuel 11 and 12. The similarities in these two indictments are well worth pondering.
71 The expressions “therefore” and “without excuse” (verse 1) are found here for the second time in Romans. “Therefore” points to a conclusion based upon what has previously been said. Romans 1:24 begins with this term, indicating that men are “given over” to sin by God because they have received revelation from and about Him, which they have rejected. The “therefore” in Romans 2:1 informs us that the indictment which Paul is making is based upon the sins previously mentioned in chapter 1. This is confirmed by Paul’s argument in 2:1-3.
74 See also Isaiah 3:13-15; Ezekiel 22:1-14, 23-29; Micah 2:1-4; 3:1-12. Several things catch my eye as I read these prophetic indictments of Israel. The first is that the leaders of the nation are singled out as those who are especially culpable, for their own sins and for leading others after them. The second observation is the “institutional nature” of their sins. It is by means of “unjust decisions” (Isaiah 10:1) that the helpless are oppressed and robbed. It is the “house” of the Lord which has become a “den of robbers.” I take it that the sins of the leaders of Israel were often sanctified by legislation and institutionalism. They did not take a widow’s house away forcibly nor did they snatch purses. They passed laws which made it impossible for widows to keep their houses, and then probably bought them at a fraction of their value. They set up money-changing tables in the temple area, thereby ripping off pilgrims with unfair rates of exchange. It was all done on the “up and up,” but the result was robbery.
75 The reason why no emphasis is placed on man’s heart here is that men cannot know their own hearts or the hearts of others. The self-righteous, whom Paul condemns here, judge men on the basis of their deeds. Since men’s deeds are the fruit of what is in their hearts, this visible standard of conduct and of judgment is emphasized.
79 In truth, no Gentile ever kept the Law, so as to be declared righteous, any more than the Jews. But the statement is true in principle at least, based upon the standard which Paul has put forth above (verses 5-16). In reality, it will be those Gentiles who have been justified by faith who will judge the unrighteous, self-righteous Jews, along with all other sinners (see 1 Corinthians 6:2).
81 An example of God’s impartiality can be found in His dealings with the people who lived in Canaan. God told Abram that He would expel the Amorites for their iniquity, when their sin became fully developed (Genesis 15:16). When God led His people into the land, to dispossess the Canaanites, He held the same standard of conduct for them, promising to expel them if they practiced the same sins. They did, and He did. God is impartial in His judgment of sin.
82 The requirements change, because God, in fairness, judges men on the basis of the revelation they have received. Men are therefore judged in accordance with what they have done with what they have received.
84 This is a very significant reason why our church leadership is based on a plurality of elders and not on a singular authority. There is great danger in giving any one man too much authority. There is a great temptation to elevate him above the Word of God, when all men should equally fall under the authority of the Word.
85 To couch this thought in more biblical terms, we are to use the Word of God as a mirror, first, to deal with the beam in our own eye. Then, and only then, can we use the Word of God as a magnifying glass to discern sin elsewhere.