In verses 18 to 32 of chapter 1, Paul writes how the wrath of God is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. And we’ve seen that God reveals his wrath, not by sending thunderbolts from heaven to destroy the wicked, but by removing his restraint on the wicked and allowing them to fall deeper and deeper into sin and misery. Do you remember? I spoke about God’s common grace which is his kindness towards all people, by which he restrains our sin so that, although the world is bad, its not as bad as it would be if it were not for God’s common grace by which he holds back the sinful inclination of the human heart.
However, in his wrath, he loosens his grip, so that the wicked fall deeper into sin.
And so, we noticed how Paul used the same pattern three times at the end of chapter 1. Three times he told us that the wicked knew God. Three times he told us that they suppressed or rejected their knowledge of God and instead worshipped idols. And three times he told us that God therefore gave them up to their sin. He gave them up to sexual impurity in a general sense. He gave them up to homosexuality in particular. And he gave them up to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done. God’s wrath is revealed every day in that he lets sinners fall deeper into sin and into the misery it causes.
But in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed, because in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we discover that sinners can become right with God through faith in his Son who died to pay for our sins and to bring us to God.
Chapter 2 used to puzzle me. Look how it begins:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
This used to puzzle me because it seemed to me that Paul was addressing his readers in the church in Rome. And he didn’t have good things to say about them, because it seems that he’s accusing them of the same sins that he’s mentioned in chapter 1. You know:
You people in Rome look down on everyone else. Well, you’re guilty of the very same sins.
And then, as you read on, it seems from what he says that he’s addressing Jews. You know, he talks about having the law; and the Jews were the ones who had the law. So, I used to scratch my head and wonder: Paul is talking to Jews here. Was the church in Rome made up of Jews? That doesn’t seem right, because it was a Gentile city.
So, this chapter used to puzzle me. But then I discovered that the ‘you’ in verse 1 is in the second person singular. In other words, instead of using the second person plural — you know, ‘yous’ as we might say in Northern Ireland — instead of using the second person plural to address a group of people, Paul is addressing one person in particular:
Hey, you over there. I’m talking to you.
And the one person he’s addressing is an imaginary person. Now, that’s not to say that Paul has an imaginary friend. But he’s doing what preachers might do from time to time, or what any public speaker might do from time to time. He’s pretending that he’s addressing a particular person in order to teach the members of the church in Rome something important. So, he’s saying to the church in Rome:
You might have encountered this kind of person. Well, this is what I’d say to this kind of person. I’d say to him: ‘Hey you [dot dot dot].’
And the kind of person Paul is addressing in chapter 2 is a Jew. In chapter 1, he was addressing the Gentile pagan. Or he was addressing the wicked in general. But in chapter 2 he’s addressing the Jew. And the point he’s trying to teach us is that the Jew is no better off than the Gentile pagan, because both of them are sinners who are liable to God’s wrath. Both of them are sinners; and both of them need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because the only way sinners can become right with God is by believing in his Son who died for us.
So, in verses 1 to 5, Paul teaches us that if it’s right for God to condemn the Gentile pagan for his sins, then it’s right for God to condemn the Jew who does the very same things. Then, in verses 6 to 11, he teaches us that God’s impartiality means that he will treat all people the same. And in verses 12 to 16, Paul teaches us that possessing the law — which is what the Jews boasted about — doesn’t really matter. And so, that’s what we’re going to be thinking about today.
Verses 1 to 5
So, Paul imagines the Jew agreeing with everything he has said so far. He’s imagining this Jewish man nodding his head in agreement as Paul described the sins of the Gentile pagans who knew God, but who has suppressed the truth about God, and who have fallen deeper and deeper into sin. The Jew agrees with Paul and is pleased with himself because he belongs to God’s special people. His attitude is:
The Gentiles are sinners and under God’s wrath. But I’m a Jew. I’m okay.
But Paul is saying to him:
Are you? Are you okay? Don’t you do the same things that the pagan does? Aren’t you guilty of the same sins?
That’s Paul’s point in verse 1:
you who pass judgment [on the Gentile pagan] do the same things.
And by saying they do ‘the same things’, Paul is probably referring to the long list of vices in verses 29 to 31 of chapter 1. Paul is saying:
Mr Jew, I know you look down on the Gentiles. But you know what? You’re not any better. You do the same things they do. You’re also a sinner.
And look at verse 3. Paul says to this imaginary Jew:
Mr Jew, you know the Gentiles deserve God’s wrath for their sins. Well, do you really think you’ll escape God’s wrath when you’re guilty of the very same things?
And then look at verses 4 and 5. Paul is saying to this imaginary Jew:
For the time being, God is being very patient with you. He’s being very kind towards you. You see, he’s giving you time to repent.
But instead of repenting, this imaginary Jew has been storing up wrath against himself, because instead of repenting, he’s carried on doing the very same things that the Gentile pagans have been doing.
And just notice what Paul says in verse 2: God’s judgment is based on truth. And then there’s verse 5: God’s judgment is righteous. It’s right. God always does what is right and no one who is condemned by God will ever be able to say that God was unfair, or unjust, or wrong. God always does what is true and right. So, if it’s right for God to condemn the Gentile pagan for his sins, then it’s right for God to condemn the Jew who does the very same things.
Verses 6 to 11
The main point of verses 6 to 11 is that God’s impartiality means that he will treat all people the same. And he treats all people according to what they have done. And so, we have verse 6:
God will give to each person according to what he had done.
And then in verses 7 and 8 we have the outcome of God’s judgment. So, verse 7: To those who persist in doing good, there will be eternal life. But, verse 8: To those who are persist in doing evil, there will be wrath and anger. And these two outcomes are repeated in verses 9 and 10. So, verse 9: There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil. That applies to the Jew as much as to the Gentile. And verse 10: There will be glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good. And that applies to the Jew as much as to the Gentile. Being a Jew doesn’t make any difference, because, verse 11 tells is, God does not show favouritism.
Before we move on, we need to ask who does Paul have in mind in verses 7 and 10 where he refers to those who receive eternal life for doing good? We need to think about this because, of course, everywhere else in the Bible we’re taught that we receive eternal life not because of what we have done, but because of God’s grace and mercy. After all, it’s by grace we’re saved, through faith. So, who does Paul have in mind in these verses when he refers to those who will receive eternal life for doing good?
There have been many suggestions over the years as to how we should understand Paul’s words here. But instead of going through all the suggestions, let me simply mention the one I think is the correct interpretation. What Paul says in verses 7 and 10 is true: Whoever persists in doing good, walking in the ways of the Lord, obeying his commandments personally, perfectly and perpetually, such a person will receive from God eternal life as the due reward for their life of perfect obedience. Such a person has done everything the Lord requires. And therefore that person will receive eternal life. On the other hand — and this is what verses 8 and 9 are about — the person who fails to walk in the ways of the Lord and who fails to do our duty before God, the person who does evil and not good, that person is liable to God’s condemnation.
Of course, no one — apart from the Lord Jesus — no one has done all that the Lord requires. And therefore not one of us will receive eternal life as a reward for a life of perfect obedience. On the contrary, all of us have done evil. The Jew has done evil. The Gentile has done evil. Therefore we all deserve to be condemned by God.
By the works of the law, no one will be saved, because we have all sinned. But the good news is — and Paul will, of course, come back to this — the good news is that sinners can be saved. But we’re saved not by our works, but because of God’s grace towards us and for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for us.
Verses 12 to 16
In verses 1 to 5 Paul teaches us that if it’s right for God to condemn the Gentile pagan for his sins, then it’s right for God to condemn the Jew who does the very same things.
Then, in verses 6 to 11 he teaches us that God’s impartiality means that he will treat all people the same. Have we sinned against him? Then we deserve his condemnation. That’s as true for the Jew as it is for the Gentile.
In verses 12 to 16 Paul teaches us that possessing the law — which is what the Jews boasted about — doesn’t really matter. So, look at verse 12: Paul refers to those who don’t have the law. He’s talking about the Gentiles. And then he refers to those who do have the law. He’s talking about the Jews. But look: those without the law who sin and those with the law who sin will both likewise perish. And they will perish because they have sinned.
Then look at verse 13: Having the law and hearing it is not what matters. Obeying the law is what matters.
Verses 14 and 15: The Jew thinks he’s better off because he has the law. However, the Gentile pagan also has the law. He doesn’t have it in its written form as it came to Moses and through Moses, to the people of Israel. However, the Gentile pagan has the law in his heart. Do you see that? The requirements of the law — in other words, the things the law requires us to do — are written in our hearts. God has given every person an awareness of what he requires of us. And our conscience also accuses us. So, even the pagan, who has never heard the Ten Commandments, knows when he’s doing wrong. So Paul is teaching us that both Jews and Gentiles have the law. However, having the law doesn’t matter.
And finally, verse 16: God knows our secret sins. He doesn’t just see the things we do, but he knows our thoughts. He knows the sinful desires and inclinations which are hidden in our hearts. And, of course, he sees the sins we do which no one else sees. So, when the door is closed, and we think we’re on our own, and no one can see us, well, we need to remember that the Lord sees it all. And the day is coming when the Lord Jesus will come to judge all people everywhere for all our sins, even our secret sins. And on that day, whether we had the law in written form, or whether we had it written in our heart, will not matter. What matters is whether we have done what the law requires.
And since, we have all sinned, since we have all broken God’s law, then everyone needs to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because by the works of the law, no one will be saved. But whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved, because through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ we receive the righteousness we need for peace with God.
Whenever we read about God’s law, and the condemnation we deserve for breaking it, we’re reminded of how much we owe to Christ for keeping the law on our behalf and for suffering the penalty we deserve. We ought to remember what we owe to him, so that we will give thanks to God for him, and will make it our aim to live our life for his glory by seeking to obey him.
And when we read of the condemnation which every unbeliever is under, we’re reminded of why we must pray, and keep praying, for the preaching of the gospel, because the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. And so, we should pray that God will continue to send out preachers into all the world to preach the gospel with confidence. And we must pray that God will call and draw sinners through the preaching of the gospel into his Son’s kingdom of grace.