Romans 2:1-29 – God’s Righteous & Impartial Judgment toward Jew & Greek
Part 1 – The Hypocrisy of the Self-Righteous [Jew] – Inexcusbale Hypocrisy & Impartial Justice vs 1-16
1. The Hypocrisy of the Self-Righteous [Jew] vs 1-16
a. Inexcusable Hypocrisy vs 1-5
1. Their Self-Condemnation vs 1-2
a. A Shared Guilt v 1
b. A Deserved Judgment v 2
2. Their Wrong Thinking vs 3-4
a. A Challenge to Faulty Reasoning v 3
b. A Challenge to Wilful Ignorance v 4
3. Their Hard Heartedness v 5
b. Impartial Justice vs 6-16
1. A Day of Recompense for Deeds Done vs 6-11
a. The Basis of God’s Judgment v 6
b. The Recompense of God’s Judgment vs 7-10
c. The Impartially of God’s Judgment v 11
2. A Day of Judgment for Secrets Concealed vs 12-16
a. The Law and Judgment vs 12-15
1. The Jews and the Law vs 12-13
2. The Gentiles and Law vs 14-15
b. The Day of Judgment v 16
1. The Purpose of the Judgment v 16a
2. The Certainty of the Judgment v 16b
2. The Day of Judgment for Secrets Concealed vs 12-16
Paul now develops the statement of v 11 ‘there is no partiality with God.’ He explains how this plays out in relation to Jew and Greek (vs 9, 10) and for the first time introduces the law, not law in general, but the moral law of God given at Sinai in particular. He anticipates his Jewish opponent’s objection – ‘but we have the law!’ and answers it accordingly. Note the explanatory ‘for’ at vs 12, 13 & 14. The first ‘for’ in v 12 expands on v 11 and the next ‘for’ of v 13 explains particularly the second part of v 12 with the third ‘for’ in v 14 introducing a parenthetical statement that includes v 15 the purpose of which is to highlight the failure of the Jew from the experience of the Gentiles. Reading vs 14-15 in parenthesis means that v 13 and v 16 directly connect with this implication: ‘Not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified … in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.’ The tense of the verb justified is future and the voice passive thus translated: ‘will be justified’ which here has reference to that future Day of Judgment as v 16 indicates.
But, we may well ask, how does this statement of Paul that ‘the doers of the law will be justified’ fit with the teaching of this epistle? If, as Paul contends, ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Rom 1 v 17) and since he concludes at chapter 3 v 20 that ‘by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin,’ how are we to understand what he writes here? There are many interpretations of v 13 with one of the more straightforward being that this is nothing more than ‘a theoretical or hypothetical statement’ (Romans Good News for the World – John Stott). It is evident from reading Romans and Galatians that legalistic Jews considered it possible to attain righteousness through doing the law apart from true faith (Rom 10 v 1-4), but that was their fatal mistake and misinterpretation of the law and its purpose. Paul writes extensively to correct such wrong thinking which was ever inexcusable and now in the era of the full revelation of the Gospel of God, absolutely inexcusable. However at this point is Paul conceding that in theory if a person could perfectly keep the law he or she would be ultimately justified before God? If this is so, then theoretically we must also concede the possibility of God in a position of indebtedness and obligated to justify a person apart from grace! Keep in mind that Paul’s focus in chap 2 is on God’s impartial and ultimate judgment according to works. He will go on to explain the heart of his message how that justification by faith is a vital and necessary present assurance without which there is no possible acceptance with God, but here he is showing that justification on the Day of Judgment will be divine approval expressed upon a righteous life of faith. Justification by works will not be something finally added to justification by faith to make it complete as if it was deficit or lacking something, rather justification by works are and will be the evidence of true faith and the basis of God’s reward for faithfulness. There is no contradiction nor does this make salvation conditional or doubtful, rather it makes it real. The mark of a true believer in whatever era has ever been an obedient life. Paul is exposing to the Jews their hypocrisy in the God given religion they received. Lack of reality and empty profession are of no value despite great privilege. Paul will spell this out more fully at vs 25-29. Sadly, Christianity in many ways is no better than Judaism; it too has its share of profession and hypocrisy.
The whole point in vs 12-16 is to show that the Jew is without excuse. Not only is he without excuse for his own failure to do the law, but his guilt is even more amplified by the Gentiles who knew nothing of covenant relationship, privilege and responsibility, yet by nature have done things contained in the revealed moral law of God. The Jew is left with no refuge in his privilege, with no excuse for his failure and with nothing to say in his defense (Chap 3:19). He stands exposed to the righteous judgment of God.
a. The Law and Judgment vs 12-15
Before coming to consider the Jew and Law vs 12-13 let's go to the second point first to get the sense of what Paul is showing here to the Jews with regard to the Gentiles:
2. The Gentiles and Law vs 14-15
The force of what Paul is saying to the Jew is this: possessing the law as a circumcised Jew will be of no advantage over a Gentile on the Day of Judgment. In fact the privileged, yet unrepentant Jew will be worse off for not only is he more accountable, but the very law in which he glories will be the standard for his judgment (v 12). More light means more responsibility and therefore more severe will be the punishment for greater is the sin. It was the mistake of the Jew to think that being a Jew and hearing the law every Sabbath day was enough. They couldn’t have been more wrong. It is only the doers of the law who will be justified (v 13). The doing of the law here is then to be understood in doing it the way God intended, but more about that shortly. The Gentile who has sinned without revealed moral law as in possessing the Ten Commandments like the Jew will perish without the law (v 12). Yet, what Paul shows is that they don’t perish without any sense of law and knowledge of right and wrong. The experience of the Gentiles shows that even they have an intuitive sense of right and wrong and therefore by natural inclination with the witness of that inner monitor called conscience and the ability to reason in their minds have done things that God’s moral law prescribes (vs 14-15). This does not mean they are counted by God as righteous for men are only righteous before God by grace not nature, but it does prove there is a correspondence with the moral law written on the human heart to God’s revealed moral law which was written on the tablets of stone. The same author wrote both. This is why Paul says ‘who show the work of the law written in their hearts’ (v 15). The lesson for the Jew is forcefully clear – the actions of the Gentiles condemned them. The Gentile without the externally revealed moral law of God or the Old Testament scriptures did have a sense of moral values and justice, but the Jew with his privilege and knowledge through possessing and hearing God’s revealed will and standard of righteousness not only failed to obey and do, but did what should not have been done and therefore broke the law of God and rendered his circumcision meaningless. Paul will further develop this part of his argument in the next section (vs 17-29). Paul does not seem to be saying here that the doing of the Gentiles corresponds with the ‘doers of the law’ at v 13 which particularly relates to the Jew and if this is so, then he cannot be referring to, at this point in his argument, ‘Christian Gentiles’ who fulfill ‘the righteousness of the law’ in the way that Paul describes at Romans 8 v 4 as some suggest. Rather, he is simply demonstrating to the Jews through the Gentiles their abysmal failure to do at all as they should have done despite having the revealed will of God.
It was the privilege, knowledge and responsibility of the Jew that gave him a distinct advantage and put him in a different category than the Gentile having greater light and therefore greater accountability. That is why Paul raises and answers the question: ‘What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God’ – Romans chap 3 vs 1-2 and that is why he says at v 12 of this chapter - ‘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’. So wherein did the Jew go wrong in his thinking and practice? And, just how did God intend His people to do the law? This will take us back to the first heading under the Law and Judgment vs 12-15:
1. The Jew and the Law vs 12-13
Let’s consider the covenant privilege and responsibility of the Jew. Through Abraham they had received the sign of circumcision which was the seal of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 17 vs 1-14; Rom 2 vs 25-29). This was intended to be a covenant sign of personal and national relationship not a mere identity ritual. Then, the Lord after redeeming Israel from Egypt gave to them His law covenant at Sinai which formed their constitution as ‘a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19 v 6) under God with His religious and moral ethics summarized by the Ten Commandments written with His own finger on the tablets of stone which Israel were to obey (Exodus 20:1-21; 31:18). The covenant sign of circumcision did not save a Jew nor did external obedience to the law make a Jew righteous. They were not given for that purpose. It is a myth to suggest that God expected ‘perfect’ obedience to the law and it was a fatal mistake on the part of the Jew to think that through external obedience to the law he could be or would be considered righteous, justified before God (Gal 3 v 21). God’s law regulated their lives by His revealed standard in worship, morality and civil life. The fact that he made provision for failure and sin in the sacrificial system shows that failure was not only possible, it was inevitable – thus there was the provision of sin and guilt offerings (Lev 4 v 1-6 v 7) and indeed the great day of annual atonement (Lev 16; 23 vs 26-32). Of course, the sacrifices of Israel pointed forward to the need for a once for all and absolutely sufficient sacrifice that would forever deal with sin. The epistle to the Hebrews in a special way explains how this has been made by Christ.
There were two essential foundations to both these covenants. The one is faith and the other is love. Circumcision was given as a sign to the man of faith. It was faith that brought Abraham into relationship with God, not circumcision. It was the covenant sign as Paul clearly explains at chapter 4 vs 9-12. Circumcision without faith and true righteousness, as Israel’s history shows, is meaningless. The unchanging principle taught in scripture is that ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Faith brings a person into relationship with God and is the basis of divine justification. Just as circumcision without faith had no meaning so obedience without love had no validity either. Again, this is an unchanging principle – obedience to God should be the fruit of love as well as the evidence of faith. Love was first toward God and then toward one’s neighbour. Love was foundational to the Old Covenant, just as it is to the New Covenant. The Lord Jesus confirms this by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 to a scribe who asked Him:
Which is the first commandment of all?”
Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the
LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.
And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love
Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is
more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12 vs 28-34).
In Matthew’s account of the lawyer’s question the Lord Jesus added this: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22 v 40). Again on another occasion he was approached by a lawyer with this question:
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all
your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10 vs 25-28).
What follows is a story told by the Lord Jesus in answer to the lawyer’s attempt at self-justification – “Who is my neighbor?” This story is commonly called, ‘the parable of the Good Samaritan.’ Notice, that when the Lord said “do this and you will live” he was reminding the lawyer that eternal life in the future is relevant to how you live in the present just as Paul has stated in Romans chap 2 v 7. Not in any sense of earning or meriting it; the Lord’s answer did not have the meaning – if you can ‘do this’ you will merit eternal life or try and ‘do this’ but in fact you will find it impossible. What He told the scribe to do was love God and in loving God you will love your neighbour. There is however, truly only one way to love God and that is by a heart and life that has known repentance and faith being fully submitted to the will of God or to use the language of Paul at v 29 of this chapter, a person who has known ‘circumcision of the heart’. The apostle John in his first letter writes: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love … Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments’ (1 Jn 4 vs 7-8; 5:1-3). John of course writes a developed theology of love based upon the fullness of New Testament revelation of the gospel, but that in no way minimizes an unchanging truth. The Lord Jesus came both to fulfill and to expound the truth revealed in the OT – what it means to love God and the meaning of God’s love to us. To truly love God requires the inward work of the Spirit, the submission to God’s will and true faith in His person. The Lord Jesus told His antagonists who claimed relationship with God: “I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (Jn 5 v 42). They had the scriptures, they claimed to believe Moses, but failed to believe in the one of whom Moses wrote and who the Father sent (Jn 5 vs 37-47). Why? Because they were of their father the Devil (Jn 8 v 44) and were ‘stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears’ as Stephen reminded his murderers (Acts 7 v 51). This is why Jesus confronted Nicodemus with truth he should have known: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3 vs 3, 10) and this is why Paul writes – ‘For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God’ (Rom 2 vs 28-29). This confirms what God called for in Deuteronomy 10:12-16:
And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and
to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I
command thee this day for thy good? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD'S thy God, the earth also, with all that
therein is. Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it
is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked (KJV).
So when Paul stated that ‘the doers of the law will be justified’ we cannot ignore what the law actually taught and how its truth was confirmed by the Lord Jesus and how it is relevant to Paul’s message and argument at this point in the epistle. So the idea that anyone could be justified apart from faith has always been an impossibility and the idea that anyone could please God by doing the law without love was, and is also an impossibility, thus Paul’s conclusion at chap 3 v 20 – ‘By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight’ – not before the Cross or since it.
Paul explains, as he continues to unfold the glory of the gospel in this epistle, how ‘the righteousness of the law’ is fulfilled by those ‘who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit’ – Romans 8 vs 1-4, but we must not forget that there were many true believers among Jews throughout their history and in the times of Jesus who lived lives of faith and kept the law as God intended. The scriptures give many examples by word and life of the justified faithful who delighted in and lived out the righteousness of the law. Consider the words of Psalm 1 vs 1-2:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
And again the opening words of the author of Psalm 119 whoever he was:
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, Who walk in the law of the Lord!
Blessed are those who keep His testimonies,
Who seek Him with the whole heart!
Think of Daniel and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah who would not defile themselves with the King’s food (Daniel 1) nor would Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 3) nor would Daniel pray to any other God save the Lord (Daniel 6). Sounds like they were faithful young men fulfilling the first three commandments – Ex 20 vs 3-6. Indeed, faithful Daniel was ‘a man greatly beloved’ by the Lord (Daniel 9 v 23; 10:11) and was told; ‘go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days’ (Daniel 12:13). How can we forget Ruth the Moabite and Gentile who became the great grandmother of King David and who made one of the greatest confessions of faith recorded in the OT (Ruth 1 vs 16-17)? When we come to the New Testament era after the dark and bloody history of the intertestamental period with the land of Israel ruled by godless leaders and dominated by a pagan empire. Yet we discover a couple called Zacharias and Elizabeth who were ‘both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances [righteous requirements] of the Lord blameless’ (Luke 1 v 6). Then there is Mary the mother of Jesus, a virtuous young woman of faith and Joseph ‘a just man’ of faith (Matt 1 v 19). Nor must we forget Simeon and Anna (Luke 2 vs 25-38). These and many others are examples of the just who lived by faith in the Old Covenant era, who loved the Lord in truth, obeyed His word and rested in the assurance of His promises that the Messiah would come. When they and all the others who lived righteously and faithfully before the Cross stand in the Day of Judgment, will they not then be justified by their works when they receive the reward of His approval as those who did ‘good’ and demonstrated ‘patient continuance in doing good’ and sought ‘for glory, honor, and immortality’? (Rom 2 vs 7, 10).
b. The Day of Judgment v 16
1. The Purpose of the Judgment 16a
The Day of Judgment reflects back to vs 5 & 6. Here Paul states that the God’s purpose on that day will be to ‘judge the secrets of men.’ God ‘will judge’ through Jesus Christ with pure and absolute justice. The Lord Jesus will have full knowledge of all facts concerning us. He knows what no one else knows. He will judge the things done in secret when no other eye was upon us and He will scrutinize and expose the very motives and reasonings of our hearts. There will be no hiding from His all-seeing eye or covering our sin from His all-knowing discernment. Secret is translated ‘inwardly’ at 29 with this being the only other occurrence of the word in Romans (Cp Matt 6 v 6; 10 v 26; Jn 18 v 20; 2 Cor 4 v 2). It’s the idea of what is hidden and therefore would include the motives and reasonings behind a person’s conduct (Cp 1 Cor 4 v 5; 1 Pet 3 v 4) as well as the actions of men hidden from others in this life, but known by God who will reveal and expose all such. The Lord Jesus said: “there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known” – Matt 10 v 26 and the writer to the Hebrews stated: ‘Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ – Heb 4 v 13.
2. The Certainty of the Judgment 16b
Paul says that the Day of Judgment through Jesus Christ is ‘according to my gospel.’ The gospel obviously did not originate with Paul nor did he own it. The gospel was the divine message he was appointed to preach (Rom 1 v 1). The gospel declares the certainty of judgment and a day of accountability as part of its message. The fact that Jesus Christ is God’s appointed Judge is indeed the revelation of the Gospel. The one who as Saviour bore on the Cross the judgment our sin deserves, is the one who will righteously judge men for the sins they have committed and reward saints for the good works they have done.
As Paul has already stated at vs 2 & 5 God’s judgment will be according to truth and absolutely righteous. He judges men according to their works and according to the light they have received regarding God. In relation to the Gentiles Paul has talked about the light of creation that leaves men without excuse – Rom 1 v 20 and the light of conscience that witnesses to reason – Rom 2 v 15. Then with regard to the Jew He has reminded them of the knowledge of God's mercy that should lead to repentance – Rom 2 v 4 and the knowledge of the law that calls for true obedience – Rom 2 v 13.
Moreover, the standard of judgment for those in this era of full gospel revelation will surely be the gospel with this determining factor – how did I respond to Him who is Lord and Saviour? When Paul therefore says ‘according to my gospel’ he means that the gospel declares that the Day of Judgment is coming and it announces the name of God’s appointed Judge as well as warning of the inescapable reality of judgment which will be according to the absolute and perfect knowledge of the Judge who knows everything about everyone.
Appendix on Paul’s Use of Two different Words for Non-Jews
It is of value to discuss why Paul uses two different words for non-Jews in Romans (And elsewhere). First he uses the word ethnos generally translated Gentiles or nations in Romans and throughout the NT. We encounter it initially at chap 1 v 5 where it is translated ‘nations’ and then at v 13 where it is translated ‘Gentiles’ as it is in chapter 2 v 14 and so on. Then he uses the word hellen found and translated Greek for the first time at chap 1 v 14 then at v 16. At v 14 of chapter 1 it is the Greek as distinct from the barbarian (those outside of Greek culture and language, a word used only here in the epistle) and at v 16 of chapter 1, it is Greek in contrast to Jews. Generally speaking in Romans Paul seems to use ethnos in the broad sense of the Gentile peoples and nations apart from Jews while he uses hellen as representing Gentiles in contrast to Jews. According to William Arthur Heidel’s article on (Grecians) Greeks in The International Standard Encyclopedia [ISBE] ‘Hellēnes was applied not only to such as were of Hellenic descent, but also to all those who had appropriated the language of Greece, as the universal means of communication, and the ideals and customs collectively known as Hellenism.’ Thus among the civilized nations of the Roman Empire Greek was a universal language, therefore when Paul refers to the Greek it is the Gentile Greek speaking and cultured peoples of the Roman Empire as opposed to Jews. Moreover, while Greek may have a first or particular point of reference to people of that language and culture as at Romans 1 v 14, he evidently intends his readers to understand the Greek as representing Gentiles universally wherever their location and whatever their language for after saying that ‘Jews and Greeks … are all under sin’ at Romans 3 v 10 Paul then concludes ‘all the world … guilty before God’ at v 19. Again to quote William Arthur Heidel: ‘In general, it would seem probable that where “Greeks” are comprehensively contrasted with “Jews,” the reference is to “Gentiles”’ (ISBE).
The matter is significant because some interpret the Gentiles referred to in vs 14-15 of Romans 2 as pagan Gentiles as opposed to Jews and Greeks, the religious and the cultured who both had law. This would mean that the law of v 13 is not strictly God’s moral law as given at Sinai, but law in general. It also allows for the idea that when Paul refers to the Greek he is thinking of the cultured Greek moralist as separate from the Gentile peoples described in chapter 1 vs 18-32 and they along with the Jew are singled out as two classes that represent man at his highest in religion and culture. This line of thinking certainly finds support when we compare what Paul says concerning the Jew and Greek in relation to the preaching of the Cross in 1 Corinthians 1 vs 22-24. Therefore, when Paul talks about the gospel as ‘the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek’ he is not thinking of the gospel taken to, and being heard by the Jew before the Greek rather it is the case that the seeming best of men need the gospel as much as anyone else and it follows if they need it so does everyone else. Lenski says of Romans 1 v 16:
“First” is comparative. Paul takes up this double class and passes over all the rest for a specific reason. As far as the gospel and
salvation are concerned, no one is to think that, because of their high prerogatives, Jew and Greek have less need of it than others or
have some advantage over others. Take Jew and Greek first, Paul says, and each obtains salvation through God’s gospel power only as
believing persons. By saying that regarding Jew and Greek he does not need to add a word about others (The Interpretation of St Paul’s
Epistle to the Romans).
Though this is an interesting, appealing and legitimate line of interpretation, it’s hard to see how any law is relevant to justification before God apart from His revealed moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments. Also, Paul writes ‘to all that be in Rome,’ yet despite the destination of his letter he never once refers to Romans as a separate class in his epistle. The identity – Greek therefore, seems to be used as representative of all Gentile peoples.