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Study and Exposition of Romans 2:1-16

A. Introduction

Someone has once quipped that the definition of a jury is: “twelve people chosen to decide who has the best lawyer.” With the current state of litigation in America, it’s no wonder that people are openly skeptical about truth and justice in our law courts. Indeed, the problem with justice is that it appears to be no longer admissible in our practice of law.

There is coming a day, however, when things will be different—radically different. It is a day Paul refers to in Romans 2:16 when God will judge men. There will be no need for lawyers; God does not need to listen to crooked defense strategies. There will be no need for remembering what actually happened; God is omniscient and omnipresent. He knows what happened better than we do; indeed he was there when the deeds were done. There will be no need to attempt to discern whether someone is actually telling the truth or not; again, God knows all things. In short, it will be a perfect situation: a holy judge who cannot lie or sin, be bought off or corrupted in any way. He will possess complete knowledge of all mitigating factors and circumstances and his verdict will be just with no opportunity for appeal. Indeed, there can be no appeal, for there is no higher court. It will be a radically different day, for an omnipotent, omniscient, and holy judge will take the stand and settle issues once and for all. The question surfaces, then, “on what basis does God judge people.” Paul provides an answer in Romans 2:1-16: God judges people impartially, according to their works and the truth. Let's take a deeper look now.

B. Translation of Passage in NET

2:1 Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. 2:2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. 2:3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? 2:4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance? 2:5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed! 2:6 He will reward each one according to his works: 2:7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, 2:8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness. 2:9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, 2:10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. 2:11 For there is no partiality with God. 2:12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 2:13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous. 2:14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. 2:15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, 2:16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

C. Full Exegetical Outline

    I. Jews who judge Gentiles hypocritically, thus despising God’s mercy, will themselves be judged by God impartially according to truth and their works (2:1-11).

      A. Jews who judge Gentiles hypocritically are without excuse since they practice the same sins and will also be judged by God in accordance with the truth (2:1-4)

        1. The Jews are without excuse when they judge Gentiles because they practice the same sins (2:1).

        2. Paul and other Jews know that the judgment of God is according to the truth (2:2).

        3. Jewish hypocrites will not escape God’s judgment (2:3).

        4. Some Jews show contempt for God's kindness, etc. not realizing that his kindness leads them to repentance (2:4).

      B. That God’s judgment is impartial is seen in that both Jew and Gentile have law and that both are judged on the same basis, i.e., works (2:5-11).

        1. Jews who are hard-hearted and unrepentant are storing up wrath for themselves—a wrath they will receive on the day of God’s righteous judgment (2:5).

        2. God will reward each one according to his works (2:6)

        3. There will be eternal life for those who by perseverance in good works seek glory, honor, and immortality (2:7).

        4. There will be wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth, but follow unrighteousness (2:8).

        5. There will be affliction and distress for those who do evil, and glory, honor, peace, for everyone who does good (2:9-10).

        6. God is impartial (2:11).

    II. God’s impartiality in judgment is seen in that both Jew and Gentile alike are to be judged equally and fairly (2:12-16).

      A. The fact that God is impartial is demonstrated in the manner of his judgment: those who sin apart from the law will be judged apart from the law and those who sin under the law will be judged by the law and only those who do the law will be declared righteous (2:12-13).

        1. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law (2:12).

        2. All who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the law (2:12).

        3. Those who hear the law are not righteous before God (2:13).

        4. Those who do the law will be declared righteous (2:13).

      B. The fact that God judges the Gentiles, not based on the Law of Moses which they did not have, but on the law of the conscience written on their hearts, demonstrates that he is indeed impartial (2:14-16).

        1. The Gentiles are a law to themselves in that although they do not have the Mosaic law, they nonetheless do by nature things required in the law (2:14).

        2. The Gentiles show that the work of the law is written in their hearts and their consciences bear witness (2:15).

        3. Their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them (2:15).

        4. According to Paul’s gospel, there will come a day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ (2:16).

D. Simple Point Outline

    I. Jews Will Not Escape God’s Judgment (2:1-11)

      A. God Judges according to the Truth (2:1-4)

      B. God Judges according to Works (2:5-11)

    II. Jew and Gentile Alike Will Be Judged Equally and Fairly (2:12-16)

      A. The Basic Principle of Impartiality (2:12-13)

      B. The Application to the Gentiles and All Men (2:14-16)

E. Exposition Proper

Romans 2:1-16 is a powerful passage about the nature of God’s justice. That much—and more—is quite clear. But the passage is not without its interpretive difficulties. One such difficulty worth discussing here involves the question of to whom the passage is directed. Some have argued that the principal referent for the passage is the moral Gentile who has not sinned like other Gentiles in the ways Paul has outlined in 1:18-32. Paul wants to have a word with this “moral person” before he moves on to speak to the Jews in 2:17-3:8. The primary arguments for this position are: (1) the for (gavr, gar) makes good sense if Gentiles are still in view in 2:1-16, and (2) Jews are not explicitly mentioned until 2:17; (3) the Jews did not practice the same sins as the Gentiles so Gentiles must be in view in 2:1.

While this is certainly a reasonable option, it is not the best one. There are many indications in the passage that suggest that Jews are in view: (1) “passing judgment on someone else” is particularly a Jewish habit practiced against the Gentiles; (2) Paul says “we know” which indicates that he and his fellow Jews are in mind since the Gentiles do not know that God’s judgment is in accordance with the truth (2:2); (3) showing contempt for the riches of his kindness, etc. is particularly relevant if Jews are in mind since they knew about these truths (i.e., from the abundant witness in the OT; [2:4]); (4) The Jews, not the Gentiles, knew that God’s kindness does not mean weakness, but is intended to lead men to repentance (2:4); (5) the mention of the Jews in 2:17 is abrupt if they are not already intended in 2:1-16; (6) the “for” in 2:1 reads quite well when Jews are in view (see exposition); (7) Romans 2:1-16 may be based on texts like Wisdom of Solomon 11-15 which would indicate that the Jew is the specific target of the passage; (8) the Jews were indeed guilty of some of the same sins as the Gentiles (2:1, 21-24); (9) The manner in which Paul mentions the Jews in 2:17 indicates that they have been in view all along. The reason he waits to mention them explicitly in 2:17 is to prevent them from reacting negatively too quickly, closing him off, and refusing his indictments in 2:1-16. It will begin to dawn on them throughout the passage that they are in view, but this point will be brought home, without doubt, in 2:17ff.

2:1-4 The Jew who judges Gentiles has no excuse because at the same point at which he judges another he condemns himself. Why? Well, when he judges, he admits that such behavior is wrong, and worthy of just punishment from God, yet he himself knowingly commits the same sins.

Paul’s point is that since God’s judgment is based on truth and not on any fudging of the grades for the sake of the “chosen” crowd, the Jew is equally held accountable to God. Jews cannot condemn others for their sins when they practice the same ones. The Jew of Paul’s day knew and approved of the fact that God’s judgement is in accordance with the truth, yet he failed to apply it to himself because, in his zealous criticism of overt Gentile sin, he failed to similarly apply God’s revealed standard to his own life. Paul says that God’s impartial judgment extends to the covenant people as well. When it comes to God’s judgment against sin, we must all examine our lives, for we have a tendency to throw the first stone, all the while conveniently forgetting that we all live in glass houses.

But how then, specifically, does the term therefore (gavr, gar) in 2:1 relate to what has come before in 1:18-32? We have already argued that 2:1-16 as a whole speaks firstly and primarily to the Jew. But if this is the case, then how does Gentile sin mentioned in 1:29-31 stand as the basis (implied in the “therefore”) for the condemnation of the Jew in 2:1ff? There have been many suggestions.

As we already mentioned, there are those who argue that this fact alone suggests that Jews are not in mind in 2:1ff, but rather Gentiles. Again, we point out that there is simply too much evidence in 2:1-16 that fits the Jew better. Also, the absence of any specific reference to the Jew in 2:1-16 is not difficult to account for.

On the other hand, some argue that perhaps the best way to view the connection is according to what both the Gentiles and Jews have in common, that is, knowledge of God, albeit in different, yet similar ways. Thus the term “therefore” in 2:1 is linked particularly, though not exclusively, with the term “know” in 1:32. The point Paul is making, then, can be put as follows: if the Gentile knows “God’s righteous decree,” then a fortiori the Jew should know it even better; “therefore” he is guilty as well. (The Gentile only had the revelation of God in nature and conscience, but the Jew had the added benefit of the clarifying revelation in the law of God [cf. vv. 12-13]). While this view is attractive in certain respects, Paul’s point in 2:1 and following is not what Jews and Gentiles have in common, per se, that makes them culpable, but rather that God’s judgment is fair and equitable and as such will be applied to all without discrimination. The issue is God’s justice in respect to all men, including the Jew.

Therefore, the best way to understand the connection between 2:1ff to 1:18-32 (esp. 1:29-31), is not according to what the Gentile and the Jew respectively know, but according to what the Jews’ response to God’s judgment of the Gentile reveals. That is, when the Jew heartily agrees with God’s judgment of the Gentile, and when he too condemns the Gentile, he reveals that he believes that God’s judgment is in accordance with the truth. The problem is, however, that he somehow thinks he is exempt from God's judgement which will be meted out according to the same truth. Thus he thinks that when he commits the same sins he will somehow escape the judgment of God!

There was a common belief among Jews in Paul’s day (though certainly not all Jews were guilty of this) that they were somehow better than the Gentiles and that God would not equally judge them for their sin. Perhaps the best passage in Jewish writings outside the OT where this is exemplified—and may be a text Paul has in mind here in Romans 2:1-16—is Wisdom of Solomon 11-15, and in particular 15:1-6:

But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. 2 For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power; but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours. 3 For to know you is complete righteousness, and to know your power is the root of immortality. 4 For neither has the evil intent of human art misled us, nor the fruitless toil of painters, a figure stained with varied colors, 5 whose appearance arouses yearning in fools, so that they desire the lifeless form of a dead image. 6 Lovers of evil things and fit for such objects of hope are those who either make or desire or worship them (NRSV; italics mine).

The point Paul wants to make in 2:4 is that the Jew who thinks he can sin and escape the judgment of God because he has a particular relationship with God—a relationship that the Gentile who was without the Law did not have—is sadly mistaken. This kind of Jew demonstrates contempt for the wealth of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience and does not realize the true intent of God’s patience; God’s patience and forbearance do not imply that God is weak, but rather they are expressions of his chosen method for dealing with sinners in order to lead them to repentance (metavnoian, metanoian). Holding God’s kindness in contempt is a very serious posture to advance against God and can only lead to divine wrath and anger.

2:5 An attitude of contempt for the kindness, forbearance, and patience of God can only be described as stubbornness (sklhrovthta, skleroteta), the spiritually insensitive, hard-hearted refusal to acknowledge the obvious truth—an attitude which has dire consequences (cf. Deut 9:27; 10:16; Jer 4:4; Amos 6:8). Further, the person who continues in this posture is unrepentant (ajmetanovhton) and is ironically storing up (qhsaurivzei", thesaurizeis)—not treasure, as one would expect with the expression “storing up” (Matt 6:19-20)—but wrath (ojrghv, orge). Indeed, such wrath is being stored up for that final day when God’s righteous judgment (dikaiokrisiva", dikaiokrisias) will be revealed. At the present time, a hypocritical person may seem to escape judgment, but a day of reckoning will come when God’s just judgment will be made manifest to all.

2:6 The manner of God’s righteous judgment will be to reward (ajpodwvsei, apodosei) each one according his works (cf. Ps 62:12; Prov. 24:12 LXX). Thus Paul shows complete continuity with the Old Testament on the manner of God’s judgment, but speaks of the judgment as futuristic (cf. Hos 12:2; Matt 16:27; 2 Cor 11:15; 2 Tim 4:14).

2:7-11 In vv. 7-8 Paul shows how the principle of God’s judgment finds its way among two classes of people. God will give eternal life (zwhVn aijwvnion, zoen aionion) to those who by perseverance in good works (e[rgou, ergou) seek glory, honor, and immortality. To those, on the other hand, who are characterized as having selfish ambition (ejriqeiva", eritheias), that is, who do not obey the truth (ajpeiqou’si th’/ ajlhqeiva/, apeithousi te alhtheia) but follow unrighteousness (peiqomevnoi" deV th~/ ajdikiva/, peithomenois de te adikia), God will pour out anger and wrath (ojrghV kaiV qumov", orge kai thumos).

Paul carries on with the same thought in 2:9-10, only here he treats the two groups in the opposite order beginning first with the disobedient. He says that there will be affliction (qli~yi", thlipsis) and distress (stenocwriva, stenochoria) on everyone who does evil. There is coming a time when human evil will be dealt with and no one will escape the judgment; no one will get away with evil (toV kakovn, to kakon). All will receive affliction because of their evil and they will suffer the distress that comes from being so afflicted (cf. 2 Thess 1:8-9). On the other hand, glory, honor and peace will be given to everyone who does good (toV ajgaqovn, to agathon).

Thus 2:7-10 evidences a universality and equality in the judgment of God; all will receive according to their deeds. There is, nonetheless, an order to the judgment; it is to the Jew first and then to the Greek. But the order is not just chronological in that the Jews were first in salvation-history to receive the gospel and therefore they should be judged first. There is also a logical priority put upon the Jews. Since they did receive the gospel ahead of the Gentiles, they will be judged ahead of the Gentiles. The reason this is so is because there is no partiality (proswpolhmyiva, prosopolempsia) with God (Gal 2:6; Eph 6:9; Col 3:25; James 2:1). The Jews may have thought that they were the first to receive salvation and the last to receive judgment, but that would make God partial and unjust.

We must also comment briefly on the theology of these verses. At first glance it appears that Paul is referring to any non-Christian and affirming that if they're good enough—as demonstrated by their works—they will be saved. In fact, he has been so interpreted by various commentators. The problem with this view is that it throws Paul into hopeless confusion within himself (cf. Eph 2:8-9), even in Romans itself, and results in a “council of despair.” For in the conclusion of 1:18-3:8, that is, in 3:9-20, Paul emphatically denies that anyone can be saved by their works. It is better to seek another solution.

Others argue that good works (v. 7) means “faith” and that the reference is to the Jew or Gentile who has faith. The problem with this view is that Paul does not use work (e[rgon, ergon) in this way, but instead often draws a sharp antithesis between faith and works (cf. 4:6).

It has been suggested that 2:7-11 refers to a purely hypothetical situation which would have been the case had God’s saving work in Christ not come to expression in history. In other words, had Christ not come, people would have been saved on the basis of their works. There are at least three very obvious problems with this view: (1) that the situation is not hypothetical is clear from the fact that Paul is referring to living Jews who are storing up wrath against themselves because of their unrepentant hearts; (2) the Jew-Gentile order of judgment precludes God’s revelation in the gospel having been already given in history; and (3) Jews were never saved in the OT on the basis of works. This is the heart of Paul’s argument in chapter 4:1-25.

Further, some scholars argue that what Paul means by good works is the evidence of true faith in God whereas those who do evil are self-seeking (not God-seeking) and thus have no faith in God. Their lives evidence no trust in God. In short, the works Paul talks about are simply the evidence of faith or the lack thereof.

Finally, other commentators suggest that what Paul is referring to is the true condition for eternal life—a condition he will demonstrate (by the end of 3:20) that no human being can fulfill. Thus the true condition for eternal life, the very demand of the Law of God, is to produce the good without ceasing and without failure in the outcome, ever. Of course, no one can fulfill the demand.

The last two solutions are the best: (1) they adequately explain the passage internally; (2) they do not put Paul at odds with himself, either in Romans or throughout his writings; (3) they concur with broader NT ideas about the distinct, yet close relationship of faith and works in salvation and judgment (Matt 7:15-27; Gal 5:6, 19-21; 6:7-10; James 2:14-26). To decide, however, between the two, is not easy. In the end, however, we must remember that it is not exactly Paul’s purpose at this point in Romans to discuss how one is saved, but rather to point out the nature of God's absolute justice in his method of judgement. That seems to be his point in 2:1-16.

2:12-13 In vv. 12-13 Paul explains the implications of v. 11 where he said that there is no partiality with God. Since this is true, the Gentile will not be judged by the law, but will perish apart from the law, whereas the Jew who had the law of Moses will be condemned by that law. Thus vv. 12-13 prefigure what the apostle will say in 3:9-20, namely, that all are guilty and will be punished according to God's justice.

But the Jew should not think that just because he was given the law that he is necessarily exempt from judgment, for it is not the one who has repeatedly heard the law read and taught on the Sabbath who is righteous, but only those who do the law will be declared righteous (dikaiwqhvsontai, dikaiothesontai). To be “declared righteous” does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather to be given a righteous standing before God even though one is still a sinner (5:1). It is only those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Paul could either mean that their obedience is evidence of justifying faith or hypothetically if a person could obey the law perfectly he would be declared righteous. If the latter is the idea, that person does not exist, as 2:17-29 makes plain (cf. also 3:9-20).

2:14-15 The reference to Gentiles (e[qnh, ethne) points not to Gentiles who are Christians, but rather to Gentiles as people without the Mosaic law (and by implication unsaved). If this identification is true, the for (gavr, gar) connecting v. 14 with v. 13 really connects the thoughts of v. 14 with v. 12a. Thus vv. 14-15 are an explanation of why the Gentile without the law perishes. It is because he does have a law which shows that he is guilty.

The Gentiles do by nature (fuvsei, phusei) the things required by the law. In the Greek text the term translated “by nature” could go with “who do not have the law” or with the following phrase “do the things required by the law.” Paul uses the word to refer to Gentiles who do not have the law by virtue of their birth (cf. Rom 2:27; Gal 2:15; Eph 2:3) and so it is often assumed that the first interpretation is what is meant here: Gentiles by nature—because they grew up Gentiles and not Jews—do not have the law of Moses.

But Paul has talked about Gentiles possessing knowledge of God in 1:21 and in 2:15 he talks about them having the work of God written on their hearts. Because of this, and the fact that “by nature” can refer to inward realities (Gal 4:8), it seems best to take it with “do the things required by the law.” That is, there are times (cf. the whenever) “when the Gentiles by virtue of their nature do things required by the law.” Paul must be referring in some sense to the image of God in all men vis--vis their connection to Adam. The expression they are a law to themselves is another way of saying that the demands of the moral law are written within a man.

Some argue that the expression work of the law written on their heart (toV e[rgon tou' novmou graptoVn ejn tai'" kardivai" aujtw'n, to ergon tou nomou grapton en tais kardias auton) recalls the prophecy in Jer 31:33 and that the Gentiles Paul has in mind here are Christians. But while Gentile Christians do share in the new covenant of Jeremiah they can hardly be said to be a law to themselves. Also, the negative tone of the passage and the final clause of v. 15 indicate that Christians are not in view. Again, we return to our earlier stated thesis that Gentile non-Christians are in mind here, i.e., people who are unsaved and do not have the Mosaic Law. The context, it must be remembered, is not about salvation, but about the method of God’s righteous judgment: the Jew by the Mosaic Law and the Gentile by another law, namely, that which God implanted within him to which his conscience bears witness.

The expression “work of the law” can be understood as the work which the law requires that we do. Our conscience (suneidhvsi", suneidesis) bears witness to those works (attitudes and acts) which we know to be the necessary and right demands of the law, but is not to be identified with them.

Further, Paul says, when our conscience is not at peace, it is engaged in a conflict: it will either accuse (kathgorouvntwn, kategorounton) or defend (ajpologoumevnwn, apologoumenon) us. Thus the bottom line is secure: we are spiritually and morally responsible beings. No amount of denial can change this fact. For this reason, Paul says, the Gentile is held accountable before God, just as the Jew is for what he knows. The ultimate day of accountability will come when God finally judges men.

2:16 Unfolding the precise connection of v. 16 with v. 15 or any other part of 2:1-15 is difficult to say the least. Some scholars minimize the future aspects of v. 16 in order connect it closely with v. 15. The problem with this is that “on the day” in v. 16 seems to be a future reference to final judgment. Others say that the “accusing and defending” of v. 15 refers to a future event when Gentiles stand at the judgment before God. But this seems to deny the fact that Gentiles possess a conscience now and the accusing and defending is going on now. It is precisely this rebellion against God’s moral law written on the heart that becomes the basis of their judgment in the future. There are those who argue that vv. 14-15 are parenthetical and v. 16 runs smoothly with v. 13 (see NIV). But to make so much material parenthetical to the point being argued (i.e., God’s righteous judgment) is questionable at best. Perhaps the best way to see the connection is to understand v. 16 as the culmination of a process already in motion. The point is this: the attempt to “accuse and defend” will be brought into broad daylight on the day when God judges the secrets (taV kruptav, ta krupta) of men. That God will judge men’s secrets is in keeping with the fact sin is often related to the conscience, i.e., the inward and hidden moral reasoning of a man (cf. Heb 4:13). That this judgment will take place, and that Jesus will be the judge, is in keeping with the gospel which Paul preached.

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: Understand How God Judges!

    I. Understand that God’s Judgment Will Be according to His Truth and Our Works (2:1-11)

      A. His Truth and Hypocrisy (2:1-4)

      B. His Impartiality and Our Works (2:5-11)

    II. Understand that God’s Judgment is Impartial (2:12-16)

      A. All Will Be Judged according to the Proper Basis (2:12-13)

        1. Those without the Law (2:12a)

        2. Those with the Law (2:12b)

        3. The Basis of Judgment (2:13)

      B. The Proper Basis for the Gentile: The Moral Law (2:14-15)

      C. The Time of God’s Judgment (2:16)

G. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology

The passage contributes to our understanding of God, man, and the final judgment. First, we learn from this passage that God’s character is holy and that his justice is equally applied to all men. He judges in accordance with truth and impartiality.

Second, this passage helps us with our anthropology by its reference to the “conscience.” The term conscience is used about thirty times in the NT, but this is one of the clearest uses with regard to a detailed description of how it functions. Man’s conscience responds positively or negatively to the moral law written on his heart and his current experience of this phenomenon testifies to the fact that he is responsible to God.

Third, this passage teaches that there will be a final day of judgment and that men will be judged according to their deeds (cf. Acts 17:31).

H. Contribution of Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

There are perhaps many applications which flow from this passage. We will discuss only one. Paul’s comment about the law written on our hearts and the function of the conscience has value for apologetics and helping people understand that they are accountable to an ultimate law-giver. The fact that all people appeal to moral law suggests that there is a moral lawgiver. We are not saying that all people’s morals are the same, rather we are talking about the fact of morality. This, no one can deny. And, it is hard to account for morality (the “oughtness” of moral decisions) from chance, evolution, or any non-personal source.