Here is my sermon from Sunday on Romans 2. I think it was a bit obtuse, but I was happy with what I said. Many thanks to those who helped me think about this passage, especially Bruce, Chris, and also Stephen, whose very helpful comment arrived just before I went to preach this, and reassured me that I was on the right track. (Without Stephen, assuming that you will like what follows!) For those who understandably don’t want to read the whole thing, you can see where I landed on the questions we were discussing in §2. I am preaching on the second half of the chapter on Sunday and will also post that in time.
Introduction: Turning the spotlight around
I don’t know if you were at church with us last week. If you were, you’ll know that it wasn’t a particularly pleasant sermon. If you weren’t, just cast your eye briefly over the second half of Romans chapter one and you’ll get a sense of why that might have been. We saw Paul announce God’s judgment upon the sinfulness of the world. In the second half of Romans one Paul paints a horrible picture of humanity’s rebellion against God and how it means that people are without excuse, and genuinely stand under God’s condemnation.
I don’t know what your reactions were to this passage, and our discussion last week. But it is very possible that you may have felt angered – angered at the judgmentalism of Christians, the way Christians are always talking about sin and wickedness and, let’s be honest, getting stuck into people for their sexual practices.
If that’s you, then can I just say I am so glad you have come back this week. Because in Romans chapter 2, Paul does something incredibly important. He suddenly turns this spotlight around and shines it back into the eyes of the one who is pointing it. You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment. This is an incredibly important turning point, and one that makes the difference between genuine Christianity – which is radical, and powerful – and various versions of “religion” – which are at best boring, and at worst wicked hypocrisy. What happens here in chapter 2, you see, is that Paul takes a radical step in which he shows that though it might be easy to point fingers at “the sinful world out there”, the religious world stands no less under the condemnation of God – and for exactly the same reasons.
This part of Paul’s argument is so important that he takes much longer to spell it out than he does talking about sin in the world generally. And we are therefore going to take two weeks to look at it. Today, we will look at verses 1–16. Next week we will attend to the second half of the chapter. What we’ll see in these passages, I hope, is that the reality of God’s judgment smashes our religious complacency, and forces our eyes open to our pride. But what we’ll also see, I hope, is that precisely in giving up our illusions, lies our salvation.
Can I invite you, then, to look with me at Romans chapter two, from verse one. I’m going to first work through the passage and help us understand it, and then think about what it says to us today.
§1 Romans 2:1–16: The righteous judgment of God
a. Judgment for the judges (verses 1–3)
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself. Who is Paul talking to here? He is using a style of writing in which he has an argument with an imaginary opponent. In the first instance, these imaginary opponents were pious Jews. This is not anti-semitism. Paul himself was a Jew, so was Jesus. And as we’ll see, half the point of Romans is to show that God still cares deeply for the Jews. Yet in this argument, Paul is particularly thinking about Jews. We’ll see this come out more clearly in verse 17 next week. That said, his argument is not at all restricted to Jews. No, he says, whoever you are, you who judge have no excuse. Yet it is helpful to understand that in the first instance he would have been thinking of Jews. The world of 1:18–32 you see, is the Gentile world according to the pious Jew. The criticism of idolatry, the particular sins Paul pays attention to, all of these were judgments that a Jew could be expected to agree with. But now he turns this agreement into a criticism and points it back upon his opponent. You agree with this? he says? Yes? Then you’re guilty. Why? the end of verse 1: because you who pass judgment do the same things.
In verses 2–3 he makes the logic of what he’s saying plain: Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. We know, he’s saying, you and I, that the judgment we’ve just described is just. This is a statement directed to the religious Jew, who is familiar with the standards laid out in God’s word and takes them as truth. But of course it also therefore speaks directly to those of us, particularly those of us who are Christians who know our Bibles, who also can affirm what he says here – we know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in line with truth. Well then, he says, verse 3: When you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? You stand under God’s judgment, says Paul, because you knowingly do what is wrong. You know the standards of God’s judgment, you know that it is right, and yet you still do the same things.
Paul’s target here is arrogant religious hypocrisy: the attitude of the person who somehow just assumes that because they are on God’s team, they don’t have to worry; and so they are not troubled by their own hypocrisy, by the way they do things in their own life that are exactly what they believe others will be judged for. Now, this is a powerful criticism; and next week we’ll take more time to think about what this hypocrisy actually looks like, how this doing the same things happens. For now, however, Paul is just keen to establish exactly why this means that those who pass judgment are equally guilty.
b. Cheap grace (verses 4–5)
The deep problem, you see, is the problem of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – of a knowledge of God’s generosity that doesn’t have any real effect on your life. Look at verse 4: Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realising that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? To be aware of God’s grace, you see, without it changing your life, without repentance, is an abomination. It is contempt for God’s generosity. It is a slap in the face to the one who gives a gift. And it will not turn out well. Verse 5: But because of your hard and impenitent heart, you are storing up for yourself wrath on the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. Cheap grace, that is, taking God’s grace for granted and not being moved to repentance, will be fatal. It represents a hardness of heart that will bring God’s wrath.
c. God’s impartial judgment (verses 6–11)
And this, Paul goes on to say, is for a very simple reason: God will judge our lives, without showing favouritism. This is what he stresses in verses 6–11. Have a look at it with me.
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” Paul is quoting Psalm 62 here, which was our first reading. But this was a stock-standard idea in the Old Testament. Verse 7:
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism.
Paul’s point here is fairly simple: God will judge our works without preferential treatment. At the end of the day, we face a judgment with the same standard for all alike: the doing of good or the doing of evil. There is an eery simplicity to the standard of judgment Paul describes. On the one hand, it is about what we are looking towards and focused upon. It is a matter of either persistently seeking the things of heaven, or of selfishly rejecting truth and embracing injustice. On the other hand, it is about the final content of our life’s work – is it good or evil? The words for good and evil in verses 9 and 10 are singular: it is a question of whether one’s life’s work is a good work, or an evil work.
And this standard applies to all alike. There is a kind of order – Jew first, others second – because that is the way God has graciously dealt with the world and it will not be forgotten. Yet this order makes no difference whatsoever when it comes to the basis on which people will stand or fall. Those who have persistently pursued good and looked to eternity, will be given eternal live. Those who have ignored and dispensed with the truth and looked to themselves will experience terrible condemnation: the wrath and fury of God.
d. One common standard (verses 12–16)
In verses 12–16 Paul expands this point about the common standard of judgment by talking about the law. This is the first of a series of discussions (the rest of which we’ll look at next week) in which he is directly engaging with Jewish issues – the law here being the Old Testament law, which is the heart of Jewish religion.
His point is again fairly simple. It is that because God’s judgment is finally about works, the question of whether or not you have the law is not finally that important. Because the issue is not ultimate what you know, but what you actually do. Verse 12:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Paul now goes on in verses 14 and 15 to illustrate this point by discussing Gentiles. These verses have confused people throughout the ages. And there are odd things about them. Paul’s fundamental point, however, is fairly straightforward. He wants to show that the moral content of the law is not restricted to those who actually have the law, that is, Jews, so that at one level, Gentiles are in basically the same position as Jews when it comes to the final judgment, namely, what have they actually done. Let me paraphrase from verse 14: If Gentiles, who don’t actually have the law, still do what the laws requires – which they obviously do sometimes, not every Gentile is a murderer, for example – then they show that though they don’t actually have the law, they can still be judged by its standards. Their consciences demonstrate that they are not completely in the dark in terms of what is right and wrong. That their consciences accuse them, or even excuse them, shows that they, too will stand or fall at the judgment on the same basis as the Jew, namely, whether they actually do what God requires.
There is, though, something curious about the way Paul puts these verses, and we need to just take a little time to see it. The curious thing is this: he describes these Gentiles in a way that, to a Jew, would have been provocative. First, the mention of some Gentiles possibly having a defense at the judgment is startling. Really? Their thoughts defending them? What does he mean? Second, he says in verse 15, they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts. This would have been provocative. Why? Because this language very clearly echoes a very important passage from the Old Testament. The passage is Jeremiah 31:31–34, and it speaks of God’s promise to make a new covenant with his people. Let me read it to you.
31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
The key phrase that Paul echoes is there in verse 33, where God says “I will write my law on their hearts.” For Paul to speak of Gentiles who somehow have the law written on their hearts, was provocative, because it hinted at Gentiles somehow being included in the new covenant. It’s almost as if he’s saying, imagine if this were the case – that would change things, wouldn’t it?
We’ll see when we look at the second half of the chapter next week that this is not the only time Paul hints at the new covenant. Paul is, I believe, hinting that there are going to be some unexpected twists to God’s judgment. Yet, at this stage, these are no more than provocative hints. Paul doesn’t explain any further what he’s hinting at. Nor has he said that this scenario is actually what will happen, that these Gentiles exist. In fact, in the wider flow of Paul’s argument, it is clear that this is, in and of itself, impossible.
The overall thrust of this passage, with its conclusion in verse 16 that the day is coming when God will judge men’s secrets, is profoundly pessimistic. All who sin apart from the law, Paul says in verse 12, will also perish apart from the law. The purpose of Paul’s argument is not to show how people will stand at the judgment, but to sweep away the illusions of those who think they can, those religious folk who are sure of their own standing and look down on the sin of others. The purpose of Paul’s argument is to reveal the universal problem of sin: to show that the neat categories we assume, the good people and the bad people, fall apart on closer inspection. Because the fact is that everyone, all of us, must face one day face the righteous judgment of God; and on that day, a sense of self-righteousness will offer no safety, because that day will disclose the final truth about what we have actually done. And so Paul reaches the conclusion of his argument in chapter 3, when he says that the fact is, all alike are under sin (3:9).
§2 Responding: Giving up illusions
How, then, will we respond to this confronting part of God’s Word?
We’ve seen that Paul’s target was in the first instance the religious Jew. Yet, we should remember that this letter was directed to a Christian congregation. And as we’ve seen, and as we should know all too well, there are many points where Christians and the church can fall into exactly these sins and failures, exactly this kind of religious self-assurance and pride and complacency.
How, then, will we who hear this passage today respond to it? I think this passage should do two things to us.
i. Driven to seek mercy
First, it should drive us to seek God’s mercy. This passage is a word from God to us to break through the illusions we so easily reassure ourselves with, and to show us the truth of our religious hypocrisy. How easily we fall into the sins described here? How readily we turn our critical eye upon “them out there” without a thought for our own moral failings? We break the world up into the goodies and the baddies and feel good about ourselves. And yet do we really give God what he deserves? Or do we show contempt for the riches of his grace? Do we cheapen it by thinking it doesn’t matter whether we change, whether we are truly repentant? Coming to church can be a dangerous thing, because we so easily start to flatter ourselves, while our hearts become harder, more and more unwilling to be moved by God’s goodness, more and more impermeable to his grace.
Brothers and sisters, whether we are irreligious pagans, or the most committed church members, the truth is we are in terrible trouble. Because we will all one day face God’s judgment, and the truth about our lives will be revealed, and who among us can truly say that our life, pure and simple, has been a good work, seeking eternity. Can you? But in that case, you and I face nothing less than hell: the wrath and fury of God.
And so our only hope is for God to be merciful. For God to not give us what we deserve, to not repay us according to our sins. We talk about this in church all the time; but it’s passages like this that show us what we really mean. We need, we desperately need, God to give us what we do not have any right to, to forgive us.
And it is the central purpose of Romans to show us how God has done this. We are not at this point in the letter as yet, and yet how can I not give us a glimpse of where we will end up. Look with me at Romans 3:23–24. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely, by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. And then again, look over the page, at Romans 4:7–8, where Paul sums up the significance of what Jesus means. Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him. Amen!
Brothers and sisters, if you have never really reckoned with the reality of judgment; if you have never really felt your need for God’s forgiveness, or if you have forgotten it; if you know you have been complacently trusting in your religious membership, or the fact that you are not like “them”; then let this Word wake you up, and drive you to seek God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, where it can be found.
ii. Driven to repentance
That’s the first and main thing this passage should do to us, it should drive us to seek God’s mercy. And we could stop there. But I think we ought to go on to say a further thing this passage should do to those of us who are Christians. It should drive us to repentance. Repentance, that is, to a genuine turning around of heart and of life.
Why repentance? That is, why should this passage actually lead us to want to change our lives? Unfortunately, things are going to get a little involved here, right at the end of the sermon. But there you go.
Those of us who read this passage as Christians know what comes after it, what we have just seen about where Paul goes in Romans: that is, that although we all fall short of what we ought to be, through Jesus there is justification. Through faith in him and his death for us, we are put in the right with God, so that we no longer fall under his wrath.
This completely changes the way we think about God’s judgment. Because to be justified is to have received God’s judgment already: to have been judged to be in the right. This is why Paul will go on to say, in Romans chapter 8, that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
The thing is, though, this wonderful fact does not mean Christians will not face God’s judgment at all. It might seem like this would be the case; but it’s not. Did you notice that in verse 16, Paul says that God will judge our secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. You see the final judgment is not just something we have to think about before we hear about the gospel. Later in Romans, in chapter 14, Paul will say, this time talking straight to Christians, that we will all stand before God’s judgment seat and each of us will give an account of himself to God (14:10–12). So the gospel does not dispense with the final judgment.
But it does change it. It means that we now face it with confidence, because we know we have been forgiven, and justified through Jesus. We actually see this confidence in the same passage, in Romans 14, where Paul calls his readers to not judge one another. Verse 4: Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? he says. To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. This is the difference, you see: we can be confident we will stand at the judgment, because we stand now before our master, who died for us, to justify us, and he will make us stand.
But – and this is the crucial point – this means that it is impossible that those of us who know Jesus as our master can be complacent and arrogant in the way described in Romans chapter2. We cannot, we cannot, be content to let this passage stay true of us, to be people for whom God’s kindness does not lead us to repentance. Because if it ought to be true of the pious Jew that God’s kindness should lead to repentance, then how much more should it be true of us, we who have been shown an infinite kindness, who have been loved beyond imagining in the gift of God’s only Son. How can we ever, possibly, treat that kindness with contempt. No! It must, it must, lead us to repentance.
In fact, if it doesn’t, then we cannot ever have truly encountered it. And this, you see, is the great paradox of genuine, radical Christianity: the key to true religion, to genuine repentance – the key, we may even risk saying, to the “persistence in a good work” described here – is found in coming to see yourself as guilty of failing to do it, receiving justification by faith in Jesus, and allowing this great kindness of God to lead you to repentance. This is also, I think, why Paul drops these curious hints in verses 14–15, and in our passage next week, of Gentiles who will somehow stand at the judgment: because although he cannot say it clearly yet, he is looking forward to those who, justified by God’s grace, through faith, and apart from works, will stand at the judgment of their works, because they are in Christ Jesus.
So, brothers and sisters, let us let this passage destroy our illusions: the illusion that we have any hope apart from God’s mercy, but also the illusion that God’s mercy can leave us unchanged. Let us hear the reminder in this passage of our great, our desperate need for the mercy of God, for Jesus to save us from our sins; and let that mercy lead us to repentance from the phoney religious self-righteousness we see condemned here.
St Stephen’s Church, Newtown
22 September, 2013