By Zane Hodges, edited by Bob Wilkin
The Universality of This Manifestation (2:1-5)
2:1. Paul now addresses himself to a would-be judge (you who pass judgment). He is without a defense for himself because he does the same things which he judges.
Paul draws on the vices found in 1:24-32. He certainly does not mean that the would-be judge does every sin in that catalogue. He means that he is guilty of some of what he condemns.
The description in 1:18-32 is not merely a denunciation of those who are regarded as deeply depraved. On the contrary, Paul will not allow any claim to spiritual superiority no matter from whom it comes. Paul was not describing unique cases of depravity, but the universal condition of mankind (cf. Rom 3:10).
2:2. In fact, the only thing a man really demonstrates by his self-righteous judgment of others is that he has an awareness of God’s standards. The knowledge of God’s judgment is not confined to Israel. The moralist in every race attests mankind’s awareness of this solemn reality.
The point is that the critique of the moralist exposes an awareness of the divine standard. If the moralist finds the doers of these evils“deserving of death” (1:32), his conclusion simply confirms that God’s judgment…corresponds to truth, i.e., it is truly deserved.
The Apostle is not talking here about eschatological judgment. Paul is continuing to discuss temporal judgment (1:18). Indeed, the words, “although they know God’s righteous standard, that people who do such things are worthy of death” (1:32), make clear that Paul’s focus on God’s temporal displeasure with sin (that can lead to death) continues from chap. 1 into chap. 2. Moralists can see the temporal judgments that God visits on sinners and can acknowledge their justness.
2:3-4. The moralist is trapped. Since he condemns the sin around him and justifies the “wrath” inflicted on it, how can he himself hope to escape God’s judgment? After all, Paul’s list of vices (1:24-32, esp. vv 28-32) includes the failures of the moralist himself. If he justifies, explicitly or implicitly, God’s judgment on others, should he not anticipate God’s judgment on himself?
Just because judgment has not reached him yet, does he in fact despise this delay in experiencing consequences as unworthy of his respect? Rather does not this display of God’s kindness and tolerance and longsuffering reveal God’s desire that the moralist himself should come to repentance? Doesn’t he realize that God’s kind behavior toward him is His way of drawing the moralist to repentance?
The idea of repentance here, of course, refers to the need the moralist has to turn away from his own sins to avoid the “wrath” that God exercises against such things (1:18). It has nothing to do with Paul’s doctrine of justification. Indeed, this reference to repentance is the only one in the entire book of Romans. Paul cannot be correctly understood when he is read, as many do today, as though he reflected the thinking of contemporary Judaism. On the contrary, his gospel came directly “through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12).
2:5. The unrepentant (ametanoēton) moralist is storing up wrath in a day of wrath. That does not refer to some future day of eschatological wrath. Instead it refers to the very day in which the moralist now lives since this is the day when “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (1:18).
Thus the moralist refuses to come to repentance at the very time when God’s wrathfully manifested judgment is evident all around him. His hardness and his unrepentant heart leave him woefully exposed to the righteous judgment of God, which the moralist not only ignores, but which he is actually storing up…against himself.
The fundamental truth expressed in this concluded unit (1:18–2:5) is that all men, the moralist included, are subject to God’s wrath as a result of their sinful behavior. This wrath is not eschatological, but a distressing present reality.
Humanity Faces God’s Impartial Judgment (2:6–3:20)
The Nature of God’s Judgment (2:6-16)
2:6. The fundamental principle stated here is simple: God will repay each person according to his works (i.e., he gets what he deserves). He deals fairly with humanity. The following verses elaborate this basic concept. Mankind can expect to receive whatever those works may merit.
2:7. For the first time, Paul refers to eternal life. If God judges men here and now by means of His wrath, He obviously also determines man’s future destiny. God will certainly give eternal life to any who deserve it by persisting in good work.
Unfortunately, however, no one does this (Rom 3:10, 12). Yet the principle remains true that, if there were someone who did do good persistently (i.e., perfectly) and who was indeed righteous, God would give him eternal life because of that.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself taught this basic truth (Luke 10:25-28, see esp. “do this and you will live”).
The words of Paul in this verse have been absurdly misunderstood as stating a real possibility, contra 3:19-20. What we have here is a statement of principle, not of fact. In principle, God rewards complete obedience to His law with eternal life, but in practice no one ever acquires it that way.
2:8-9. But suppose human beings do not do what Paul has described in v 7 (so 1:18–2:6)? If “eternal life” awaits those who persist in “good work,” anger and wrath are the portion of those whose character is different.
Paul now describes such people as those who are selfish and disobey the truth, but obey unrighteousness instead. This description clearly echoes 1:18-32.
Furthermore, Paul wants to make it clear here (for the first time in the epistle) that God’s wrath is directed toward such people whether they are Jew or Greek (= Gentile). Indeed, even in the matter of wrath (contrast 1:16), the Jew has priority so that God’s manifested displeasure is for the Jew first. Here Paul no doubt thinks of his own race in its present condition of servitude and recognizes in them the selfish character that invites divine judgment (cf. 1 Thess 2:15-16).
With good rhetorical effect, Paul here accumulates terms that serve to elaborate and underline his original word wrath (see 1:18). In v 8 the additional word is the synonym anger (thumos). In v 9, the phrase anger and wrath is replaced by the explicative phrase tribulation and distress. All these words, of course, are expressive of the present experience of mankind as it lives sinfully under the cloud of divine displeasure.
2:10. Paul has already stated the final destiny of those who persist in doing good (of which there are no cases).
But now he wants to contrast the present experience that God would award (in contrast to vv 8-9) to everyone who does what is good. The “anger and wrath” (v 8) and the “tribulation and distress” (v 9) which afflict sinful man here and now could be otherwise if man did what was right. In that case men (Jews and Gentiles) could expect God to give them glory and honor and peace.
Of course, human beings do indeed at times experience glory, or honor, or peace, but never in the full and consistent measure in which God would give these things if they did what is good. (Paul’s statement is comprehensive and not to be taken as though it could be fulfilled partially.)
Once again, as in v 7, Paul is discussing a principle, not an actual reality (cf. 3:12).
2:11. The bottom line of Paul’s discussion from vv 6-10 is simple: there is no partiality with God. The twice repeated reminder that the Jew stands first in humanity’s exposure to divine wrath (vv 8-9) was designed to underline this basic fact. Whatever the privileges of the Jews (Paul will discuss them shortly), his race does not, as a result, receive an “exemption” from the wrath God that is manifested toward the Gentile world (cf. Luke 12:48).
Since God is impartial in His present dealings with mankind, it follows that final judgment will be fair as well. To this theme Paul now turns for a treatment that is fuller than the allusion in v 7.
2:12. Jews and Gentiles will someday face the final judgment of God. Yet in dealing with them, God will impartially take account of their differing responsibilities.
The outcome of that judgment for the Gentiles is already envisaged in the statement that since they have sinned without the law, they shall also perish [i.e., shall also be eternally condemned] without the law. The Mosaic Law will not be an issue in the final judgment of those who have not lived under it (see vv 14-16).
By contrast, the Jew who has sinned under the law shall be judged by means of the law. God holds men accountable in accordance with the responsibilities they have, not those which they don’t have.
One must keep in mind throughout Rom 2:12-16 that Paul is using what may be called neutral courtroom language. The words as many as have sinned under the law certainly do not imply that some who are under the law may not have sinned (see 3:23). The point is that God will deal differently with sinners inside His law and those outside of it, however few or many they may be.
2:13. Mere hearers of the law will not be accounted righteous before God. On the contrary, in the Day of Judgment it is only the doers of the law who will be justified.
It is a bizarre fact that numerous modern expositors have taken this verse to affirm that there will actually be people who will be justified because they are doers of the law. But this view is completely impossible in the face of the plain declarations of Rom 3:19-20.
Paul is simply stating the basic principles of the last judgment. As the account in Rev 20:11-15 makes plain, at the Great White Throne, men will indeed be “judged according to their works,by the things which were written in the books” (Rev 20:12). If anyone were to merit acceptance before God based on those books, he would be justified. But that acceptance will be granted only to those who have not sinned under the law (cf. v 12), but are instead truly doers of the law. James himself tells us, in fact, that, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas 2:10).
Everyone at the final judgment will have his day in court. But then only the doers of the law will be justified. Of these, however, there will be none (3:20).
2:14-15. Paul now returns in vv 14-15 to the idea of judgment “without the law” for Gentiles that he had set over against judgment “under the law” for Jews, as stated in v 12.
How then, one might ask, can God fairly judge the Gentile world if they have no law to be judged by and, furthermore, if only “the doers of the law shall be justified”?
Paul’s basic idea is that Gentile behavior, coupled with their own discussion of that behavior, shows that the work (= standards) of the law is inscribed on their hearts. In pagan cultures there is an instinctive sense of right and wrong that often reflects the demands of God’s law. Even pagans generally saw evil in actions like murder, theft, extortion, adultery, and lying.
Thus, when Paul states that whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do the things that are in the law, he is referring to the many manifestations of morality that could easily be found in non-Jewish societies such as that of the Greco-Roman world in which he lived. Paul did not hold a view of total depravity that precluded him from seeing any morality at all outside the explicit observance of the law. In fact, the law which God had revealed to Moses fundamentally expressed an innate sense of right and wrong that the Creator had already inscribed on all human hearts. For Paul, therefore, the image of God was not totally defaced or expunged by human sin.
Thus, although the revealed law of Moses will not be used against the Gentiles in the Day of Judgment, nevertheless their conscience will be a witness against them.
The conscience and the discussions that express it will be like co-witnesses in the divine courtroom.
The doctrine of the Apostle Paul in this text may be traced directly to the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ that all of man’s words will be accessible on the Judgment Day (see Matt 12:36-37).
Thus, in the judgment of Gentiles, the moralizing discussions they have had with each other will come into play. In that way, the standards they have used to evaluate the conduct of their fellow man will become the standards by which they themselves will be judged.
If, for example, a pagan has said to his contemporary, “I think it is wrong of you to deceive others like that,” yet he himself in other circumstances has employed the same kind of deception, the very words of this pagan will condemn him in the Day of Judgment, precisely as Jesus said they would!
2:16. What Paul has been describing will take place in the day when God will judge men’s secrets. The phrase men’s secrets stresses what is already implied in v 15. If all of the words men have spoken on moral matters will be made known at the judgment—no matter how much the speakers might wish these words to be unknown or undisclosed—then clearly God knows all about every man. Men’s secrets, however embarrassing or shameful, will be under scrutiny at the final judgment, precisely as Jesus also declared when He said, “For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).
Paul declared on Mars Hill that God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31). This truth goes back to the teachings of our Lord Himself (see John 5:22).
The jarring declaration that God will judge men’s secrets should function like a convicting arrow aimed at every heart. For what human being does not have secrets that he hopes will never see the light of day? Of course, Paul has not yet explicitly stated man’s universal sinfulness (as he will in 3:9-18) or man’s hopeless estate if his hopes rest in God’s law (3:19-20). But the perceptive unconverted hearer or reader of Rom 2:7-16 must necessarily be disquieted by Paul’s emphatic insistence that in the judgment a person will be awarded whatever he deserves. Anyone who finds hope in that simple fact has not read this passage with enough care.
But for now, Paul is satisfied to assert that both God’s present dealings with humanity (2:7-11) and His future judgment of humanity (2:12-16) are and will be totally impartial for Jew and Gentile alike.
The Vulnerability of the Jews (2:17-29)
2:17. Adopting here (as he did in 2:1-5) the popular Greco-Roman diatribe style, Paul hypothesizes an imaginary Jewish interlocutor who represents the quintessential Jewish perspective about the Jewish position vis-à-vis his God. Such a person would in fact be quite proud to bear the name “Jew” and precisely because he possessed God’s special revelation, the law, he could rest his religious hopes on that very law. In fact, he could quite openly boast in God, since it was to his racial group that God had given Torah.
2:18-20. In contrast, therefore, to the Gentiles, this quintessential Jew would claim to know God’s will (revealed in Torah) and therefore to be able to discern the things that really matter. In the phrase the things that really matter, Paul implies the disdain in which a Jew would hold not only the standards, but also the aspirations of a non-Jew.
The phrase because you are instructed and the words and you have confidence are tied rather closely together. Since this typical Jew can discern the things that really matter as a result of being instructed out of the law, he has confidence in his own capacity to help others to escape their ignorant blindness.
Paul heaps up with superb rhetorical effect a series of self-designations that lay bare the Jewish sense of superiority to his Gentile counterparts. He himself, he thinks, is a guide, a light, an instructor, and a teacher. By way of demeaning contrast, the Gentiles to whom he brings his wisdom are blind, in darkness, ignorant, and babes.
Paul has no need to point out specifically the vanity latent in such condescending contrasts.
As he similarly said in the previous verses, Paul says, you have the formulation of knowledge and of truth in the law. He highlights how such a person builds his prideful self-esteem through the information he has acquired out of the law. But that is only hearing and is not the same as doing the law (cf. v 13).
Though the sacred writings of the Jews were a source of pride to the Jew, those very writings condemned him (3:19-20).
2:21-23. So, says Paul, does your performance match up well with your confident self-assessment? Of course, it did not, as the following series of interrogations makes clear.
You might teach another person, Paul says, but don’t you teach yourself? Have the commands that forbid you to steal and to commit adultery taught you not to do these things? In the third question of the series, however, Paul gives his interrogation a special slant. True, the Jew who claimed to despise idols may never have bowed down to one, but what about gaining financial profit from the false worship of the Gentiles?
The words rob temples no doubt refers to the willingness to receive property stolen from temples for the purpose of reselling such items for a profit. An observant Jew might even rationalize that in this fashion he was helping to “deconstruct” some pagan practice. In so doing, of course, the Jew in question participated in a theft.
The bottom line was clear. Despite his inclination to boast in the law, by his behavior in disobeying the law the Jew was engaged in conduct that disgraced God. The final question in the series furnishes a biting climax: Do you dishonor God by transgressing the law? What could be more disgraceful than to claim special privilege and standing before God, while at the same time bringing Him grave dishonor?
2:24. Paul does not leave this last question (v 23) unanswered, however. Thinking no doubt of Scriptures like Isa 52:5 and Ezek 36:22 (but paraphrasing their idea), Paul emphatically affirms that Jewish conduct has led the Gentiles to blaspheme “the name of God.” This observation is a coup de grâce to Jewish pride in possessing God’s law and was confirmed by their own Scriptures. In so stating, Paul prepares the way for the climaxing assertion found in 3:19-20.
Paul for the first time in this subunit refers explicitly to circumcision. From one standpoint,the term circumcision could stand for the Jews’ commitment to the entire law (cf. Gal 5:3). This inherent connection between circumcision and law-keeping seems implicit in these verses. But from another point of view, mere circumcision was sometimes thought of as virtually enough in itself to win the approval of God. This idea, however, Paul wishes to emphatically deny.
2:25. If someone regards circumcision as the basis for his relationship to the God who “will repay each person according to his works” (v 6) and with whom “there is no partiality” (v 11), then the profitability of circumcision accrues only if you do the law. But suppose you are a transgressor of the law, that is to say, you “have sinned under the law” (v 12)? In that case, circumcision’s profitability before God vanishes and the Jew is reduced to the level of the Gentiles who “have sinned without the law” (v 12). Or to put it another way: your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.
2:26-27. The converse is true as well. If disobedience to the law nullifies the advantage of circumcision, obedience to the law by a Gentile would make him as acceptable before God as if he had been circumcised. Thus if an uncircumcised person should keep the righteous standards of the law, he could expect to be justified before God. In that case, obviously, his uncircumcision would be credited as circumcision.
But, as before, there are no such people. It should be carefully noted that Paul’s statement is hypothetical (a third-class condition in Greek).
Paul’s supposition here furnishes the ultimate irony for any Jew who thought himself superior to the Gentiles by the mere fact of circumcision, or by the mere fact of possessing God’s law. Thus the physically uncircumcised person would judge the circumcised person. Certainly, this was a role reversal that most religious Jews probably had never conceived of before.
The advantages of Scripture and circumcision were his, but his condemnation by an obedient Gentile would still be fully deserved. It remained true that “as many as have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (v 12). If there were a fully observant Gentile there in that day, he would join in condemning the sinning Jew.
The point of Paul’s hypothetical proposition is obvious. The self-confident Jew should consider the reality that once he is a transgressor of the law, he not only has no advantage over a Gentile, but he would actually be worthy of condemnation by any Gentile who was not a transgressor of the law, even though the Gentile was uncircumcised. This is another way of affirming the utter impartiality of God (cf. v 11), however much a Jew might imagine that God would be partial to him in the judgment.
2:28-29. Jeremiah’s point (Jer 9:26; see also 4:4; 6:10) is precisely Paul’s point. Israel is no better than the uncircumcised Gentiles, since Israel is “uncircumcised in the heart.” Thus Paul is simply pointing out that what it really means to be a Jew is not determined by what is outward in the flesh. Nor is circumcision a mere matter of the letter of the law. On the contrary, a true Jew is one who is inwardly, and true circumcision is of the heart in the spirit. In the final analysis, says Paul, Judaism in its spiritual reality is an inward religion and not an outward one.
It follows therefore that the source of one’s praise is crucial. The zealous practitioner of Judaism might well revel in the praise he drew from men (see Matt 23:5-7; Luke 11:43), but this was nothing more than empty human glory. True praise could not come from men, but only from God Himself, since God alone knew the heart. If he was honest, he would realize that his own heart, like those of his ancestors, was after all truly uncircumcised.
Here ends Paul’s direct address (in diatribe style) to the proud, self-confident Jew (vv 17-29). Paul sweeps away all pretext that the Jew somehow will have special advantages in the Day of Judgment. He will not. In his own way, he is as uncircumcised as any Gentile.
Thus, the bottom line of the entire subunit (2:6-29) has been established. God is indeed utterly impartial regarding His dealings with, and His future judgment of, humanity. Even the Jew has no special claim on Him by virtue of knowing the law or because of circumcision.
Zane Hodges was a Bible teacher and Professor of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. He passed away in 2008.