Epistles: Everyone Needs the Gospel (Romans 2)

As part of Paul’s presentation of the gospel, he explains why it is needed. Paul begins with a typical Jewish criticism of Gentiles, which says that people ought to know God but are willingly ignorant and therefore deserve to die. But there is something wrong with this view, Paul says.

All are guilty

In Romans 2:1 Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Does Paul mean that if you accuse someone of murder, you have committed murder? No; we need to see the context. In Romans 1:29-31, Paul had mentioned a variety of sins: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

In Romans 2:1, Paul is saying that whenever people pass judgment on someone else, when they say that those who do such things deserve to die, they are guilty of the same kind of thing — a sin. We are all guilty of something, so we should not judge other people. (Paul will say more about that in chapter 14.) If we condemn someone, we are saying that sinners deserve to be punished (1:32). But since we have sinned, we also deserve to suffer the unpleasant consequences.

Paul writes: “You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth’” (2:2). The Greek text does not have the words “you say.” Most translations present the verse as a statement of Paul; the NRSV says that this was part of the argument that others made. However, even if his opponents said this, Paul would probably agree with it, because God’s judgment is always in accordance with truth. The problem is that different people have different ideas about what that judgment is.

Verse 3 gives Paul’s response: “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” Everyone sins, so no one should be pointing fingers.

“Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2:4). If we judge others, we are showing contempt for God’s mercy — not only his mercy toward them, but also his mercy and patience toward us. God’s patience toward sinners should make us have a change of mind and be patient toward sinners, too.

Condemned by our works

In verse 5, Paul is still talking to the person who passes judgment on others: “But by 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.” You might like to talk about the day of judgment, but if you persist in judging others, it will be worse for you on the day of judgment.

In the traditional view of judgment, God “will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (verses 6-7). If we take this out of context, it suggests that people can be saved on the basis of good works. But as Paul will soon argue, no one is good enough to earn eternal life through their works. This verse is part of the view that Paul is critiquing — he is not endorsing it. He is showing that this view of God’s judgment leads only to universal condemnation and despair. It is not good news.

“While for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek” (verses 8-9). This is where Paul wants to go — applying this Jewish worldview to the Jews. If God is in the business of applying righteous punishment on all sinners, he will do it for the Jews as well as the Gentiles, because “God shows no partiality” (verse 11).

God will give “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (verse 10). Paul will soon say that all have sinned; no one deserves glory, honor and eternal life.

In these verses Paul is describing a judgment of rewards that will never happen, because no one will ever qualify in this way. This is not a “straw man” that doesn’t exist, or a hypothetical situation that Paul made up just for the sake of argument — it was a view being taught by some people in the first century. Paul is showing that this religious belief is wrong; the gospel reveals that God envisions a much different outcome for humanity.

Equal treatment under the law

“All who have sinned apart from the law [Paul is referring to Gentiles here] will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law [Jews] will be judged by the law” (verse 12). No matter who you are, if you sin, you will be condemned. This would be terrible news, if it weren’t for the gospel. The gospel is news we desperately need, and news that is very good — but it is especially good when we see how bad the alternative is.

Verse 13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Paul is not saying that people can actually be declared righteous by their obedience — he says that no one can be declared righteous in this way (3:20). Is he inconsistent, as some scholars claim? No, not when we realize that these words are not his own view, but the view he is arguing against. He is showing that this way does not work. The gospel reveals something; the word “reveals” indicates that it was different from the previous Jewish view.

How can God condemn Gentiles for breaking his law when they don’t know what it is? The traditional view said they had a chance, but they blew it (1:19). It said that if they would have heeded their conscience, they would have done what was right: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them” (2:14-15).

As most people will admit, Gentiles keep some things required by the law. They teach that murder and theft are wrong. Gentiles have a conscience, and it sometimes says they did well — but sometimes it says that they did not. Even by their own standards, they fall short. That is how they can “sin apart from the law” (2:12). Even by their own standards, they fall short.

Paul tells us when this will happen in verse 16: “on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” Paul agrees with his opponents that there will be a day of judgment — but he introduces a big difference — this judgment will take place through Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 17:31).1

This changes everything. Paul will explain what a difference it makes a little later. But he has not yet finished showing the futility of the opposing view.

Advantages of the Jews

In verse 17, Paul begins to address some arguments that Jews might have:

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth… (verses 17-20)

If you have these advantages, Paul is saying, “you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (verses 21-22). An individual reader might object: “I don’t steal and commit adultery.” But Paul is speaking of Jews as a group, and everyone knew that some Jews broke their own laws, even stealing from their own temple (Josephus, Antiquities 18.81-84).

Verse 23: “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” If you have ever broken a law, you have dishonored God, and you are in the same category as thieves and adulterers — “sinner.” You know what you should do, and yet you fall short.

Paul uses Scripture to illustrate his point: “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (verse 24). Ezekiel 36:22 says that the Jews had caused God’s name to be blasphemed. Jews are not immune to sin, and are not immune to judgment. The “judgment according to works” view has nothing good to say to them.

The true people of God

In verse 25, Paul comments on an advantage Jews thought they had: “Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” As Paul will soon argue, everyone has broken the law — and circumcision doesn’t rescue anyone from the judgment.

“So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised [the Gentiles] but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision [Jews] but break the law” (verses 26-27). Some Jews taught that Gentiles could be saved if they obeyed the laws that applied to Gentiles, without being circumcised. So in such a case, the Gentile would be better off in the judgment than the Jew — a reversal of the picture that Jews usually drew.

“A person is not a Jew [that is, not one of God’s people] who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (verses 28-29). Just as Deuteronomy 30:6 said, circumcision should be in the heart, not just in the flesh. Just because someone is circumcised on the outside does not mean that he is truly part of the people of God who will be accepted on the day of judgment.

Paul is rattling the underpinnings of the traditional view — but he is not yet done. He is pulling his punches as part of his rhetorical strategy. He is saving his most powerful arguments for the next chapter — at this point he wants people to keep reading even if they sympathize with the opposing view. His opponents would have to agree in principle with what he says so far, though they might be uncomfortable with it. Paul wants them to keep reading, and we need to do that, too, if we want to see what the gospel reveals in contrast to the traditional view.

God is perfectly fair. Some Gentiles do what is right, and some Jews do what is wrong. But if both peoples are judged by what they do, then what advantage is there in being Jewish? That is precisely the question that Paul raises in the next chapter.

Things to think about

  • What is my attitude toward sinners? Do I tend to condemn? (verse 1)
  • How well do I appreciate God’s mercy toward me? (verse 4)
  • Does my conscience ever defend me? (verse 15)
  • How is judgment part of the gospel? (verse 16)
  • If sin dishonors God (verse 23), what should my attitude be toward sin?
  • What does it mean to have a Spirit-circumcised heart? (verse 29)


1 Paul has shifted the basis of the judgment from works to thoughts. Although we all sin in our thoughts (even more often than in our works), Paul has shifted the focus away from exterior things, subtly preparing for his focus on faith. The thoughts by which we will be judged are actually our thoughts about Jesus Christ.

Author: Michael Morrison


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