Romans Bible Study (The Righteousness of God Revealed)

Romans 2:1-16, God’s Righteous Judgment

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One of the problems we can easily slip into is a feeling of self-righteousness. We look out at the sinful world and see the grievous sins that are committed and we begin to think of ourselves as better than them. It is not an intentional thought, but just a reality. “We do not sin like those people.” “At least we are trying to serve God.” “But they do not seem to care about God at all.” It is these attitudes that seems to be Paul’s concern as he moves into chapter 2. Paul has condemned all people as being without excuse in chapter 1 for being filled with all manner of unrighteousness and being given over to a debased, unfit mind. Paul directs his attention toward the self-righteous, those who condemn the sinner, and those who think they are living acceptably.

Verses 1-3

1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? (ESV)

Paul begins by saying that we ought to know that by passing judgment on other people, we are passing judgment on ourselves. When we look at the sins on chapter 1 and point the finger to all of those terrible sinners who are violating God’s law, we must see that there are fingers pointing back at us. The reason that the fingers point back at us is because we have done the same things. We know the things listed in Romans 1:28-32 are sinful and we know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die. But we did them anyway. Read the list in Romans 1:28-32 and tell me if you can honestly say that you have never done any of these things that are deserving of death. Slander? Deceit? Strife? Gossip? Envy? Boastful? Greed? Arrogant? What we see is that God’s wrath has been revealed against all unrighteousness and godliness, and that includes us, not just the lost world. God’s wrath is not only against the depraved, debased mind that rejects God. But God’s wrath is also against us. While judging others, we must realize in great humility that we are under the same condemnation. The particular context includes Israel condemning the Gentiles, the Pharisees and scribes condemning Israel, and the moral Gentile philosopher condemning society.

God’s judgment is in accordance with truth. This is the essence of the righteousness of God. God is faithful. God is just. God is right. Thus, verse 2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.” God’s judgment is right. We cannot think that we are in any better position when we practice the very things that we condemn others for practicing. We will not escape the judgment of God when we do what we judge others for doing. God is not going to show favoritism toward us. We cannot think that it is not okay for the world to practice such sins but okay for us because we are “the people of God” or “Christians.” When we talk about the sins of the world, we are quickly on the soapbox, condemning them for their gross violations. However, when we think of ourselves, we do not condemn ourselves, but excuse ourselves thinking that we are “just human.” “We can’t help it.” “I’m only human.” But, this is false thinking. We cannot think that these acts are not okay for the world to practice, but okay for us to practice. We are not in a superior position when it comes to judgment, which is where Paul now goes in verses 4-6.

Verses 4-5

4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (ESV)

Look at how God has dealt with the world. God has shown the riches of his kindness, tolerance, restraint, longsuffering, and patience. The wealth of God’s kindness has been with a purpose. God’s kindness is not to be understood as a license to sin. God’s kindness is to be seen as the opportunity to lead us to repentance. The wrath of God has been revealed against all ungodliness. But rather than simply barbecue us for our insolence, God pours out the riches of his kindness. God’s justice should land on us immediately. But God is not only just, but is also kind, tolerant, showing restraint, and patient. This overflow of kindness is supposed to be leading us to repentance. God’s kindness is not a statement that God is not angry. God’s kindness does not suggest that justice will not come. But God is continuing to push back our deserved judgment. God does this to lead us to repentance. God does not want us to perish (2 Peter 3:9).

But rather than repent, we have taken God’s kindness as a license for sin. Our stubborn hearts are storing up wrath for the day of judgment. I think we see that Paul is directing this charge at Israel. Israel is not in superior position when it comes to judgment. Paul spoke the same words about the nation of Israel to the Thessalonians.

14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last! (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; ESV)

God’s response has been kindness. But the people are storing up wrath for themselves because they are not using God’s kindness to repent, but to practice the very sins that they condemn others of committing. The righteousness of God demands God’s righteous judgment.

Verses 6-11

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (ESV)

On that day, God will render to each of us according to our works. First, we must notice that the criteria is the same for both groups. Notice that twice in this section Paul says, “the Jew first and also the Greek.” There is not a different set of measurements for the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews do not have an advantage. Both groups will be judged the same way.

So what is the standard by which every person’s works will be judged? There are two contrasts used to describe the terms of judgment. The first contrast is in verses 7-8. The first criteria concerns what we are seeking. Are we seeking the glory, honor, and immortality that comes from God or are we self-seeking? What is your life pursuit? What are you looking for in life? Are we seeking what is best for us or seeking the things the come from God? The second contrast is seen in verses 7-8 and also verses 9-10. Are we practicing good or practicing evil? What are our lives full of? What is the foundation of your life? What are you seeking?

Seeking is not a passive action. The scriptures are full of admonitions to make every effort, strive, seek, fight the good fight, press on to the goal, work out your salvation, and the like. There are no scriptures telling us to coast to eternal life. There are no passages instructing us to float our way to heaven. There is no floating, coasting, resting, sitting, or relaxing our way to eternal life. Eternal life is given to those who seek.

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 it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (ESV)

Verses 12-16 explain further what is involved in verses 7-11. God will judge Jews and Gentiles alike justly.  Verse 12 sounds fairly complicated, but it really is straightforward. God is impartial. Those that sin, either with the law of Moses or without the law of Moses, will perish. God will not use the Jewish law to condemn Gentile sinners. Gentiles did not have the law of Moses and will not be judged by the law of Moses. Jews did have the law of Moses and will be judged by the law of Moses. It is a logical point that is the foundation for the following point made in verses 13-16.

Hearers of the law are not the ones who are righteous before God. Only the doers of the law are the ones righteous before God (Paul will discuss justification more fully in chapter 3 and we will examine it there). As an aside, this is exactly what James taught in James 2. As much as there is attempted by some to make a conflict between Paul and James, it simply is not there. They are in harmony. Paul has a more specific point toward the nation of Israel in contrast to the Gentiles. The Jews heard the law every Sabbath in the synagogues. But the regular hearing of the law is not enough to be righteous before God. Nor is hearing the law the reason God gave the law of Moses. The law of Moses was not given to simply be heard, but to be done. In the same way, you are not supposed to attend worship services just to hear the word of God proclaimed, but to do what is proclaimed from the word of God. God does not want you to listen, but not do. That is what Israel had done. They heard the law proclaimed every Sabbath, but they did not act upon it. They did not allow their lives to be changed from the reading of the law. Or put another way: possession of the law of Moses is not what counts, but doing the law of Moses. Possession of the law of Moses was not to be a badge of favored status. But that is exactly how the Jews perceived the law. Jewish writings show they thought they would avoid judgment because of the Mosaic covenant and because they possessed the law of Moses. Paul is showing us that having the law is not what makes one righteous. Notice verses 14-16.

Verses 14-16 reveal an example of doers of the law who were not hearers of it. This is the twist that Paul is presenting. The Gentiles were not hearers of the law of Moses. But they are doers of God’s law. The Jews are hearers but are not doers. Let’s break down verse 14 to be more clear.

“Gentiles, who do not have the law by nature…” I am taking the comma away from being between the words “law” and “by” and moving it to after the word “nature.” It is acceptable to do in the Greek and in the English and makes far more sense of this text. Paul cannot be saying that the Gentiles are doing the law by nature. By nature we are children of wrath. By nature we are sinners. Rather, Gentiles were not born with the law of Moses. The law of Moses was not in their environment and not part of their lives. They did not have the law of Moses nor heard the law of Moses. But they are doing the things that God’s law requires. They are doers, but not hearers. Being a hearer does not make one righteous, but being a doer (see verse 13). The Gentiles show that the work of the law was on their hearts. What does that mean? It means they were seeking after God, even though they were not given the law of Moses. They are doing what verses 6-10 demand. They were seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of God (which is what Paul says the Gentiles were supposed to do in Romans 1:18-21). Their seeking of the things of God shows that God’s law was on their hearts. God’s law was their desire.

Now, I don’t want to go too far beyond what Paul wrote. Paul does not specifically explain how the Gentiles had a law and there has been much written about it. I want to make sure we do not miss Paul’s point in all of our curiosity. Paul’s point is that the Gentiles did not have the law of Moses. They were not possessors of the law. But they were doers of the law because they were seeking after God. The Gentiles had law, not the law of Moses, and showed themselves to be doers of that law. The Jews had the law of Moses and heard the law. But they were not doers of the law because they were not seeking after God, but were self-seeking. This is the point.

Allow me a moment of latitude, but this description of the Gentiles seeking after God with their hearts is exactly what Jeremiah prophesied would need to be done to be part of the new covenant.

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34; ESV)

Wasn’t Jeremiah prophesying what Paul said had now occurred. People would not be in a relationship with God be being possessors of the law, but the law would be written in their hearts and they would know the Lord. They would be seeking after God and doing God’s will. The Gentiles are showing themselves doers of the law and the Jews are only showing themselves to be hearers of the law. While we are out of time for this lesson, I think the proof of this point is found in Romans 2:26-29. This is where Paul is leading the point and we will discuss that in the next lesson.

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