The Letter to the Romans
NO GROUNDS FOR SUPERIORITY: Romans 2:1-3:20
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul described the sins of the Gentiles, those who were not God’s people. In the next two chapters Paul turns to the Jews and reaches the surprising conclusion that the Jews are no better off before God than the nations around them. Apparently many Jews had the opinion that because they were members of God’s chosen people and possessed God’s law, they were superior to the nations around them, since they didn’t live in the same idolatrous and sexually immoral manner the nations did.
But Paul contradicts this assumption, saying that those who pass judgment on others are without excuse, since they do the same things (2:1). How can this be? Just because we have not committed adultery or murdered someone does not mean we are more righteous than those who have. Neither we nor the Jews can claim to have attained God’s perfect law. James says that those who break God’s law at one point are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10). The reason for this is that the same rebellious spirit is behind all manifestations of sin, no matter what form it takes, and therefore, any sin is equally offensive to God. Some sins may have more severe consequences for one’s self and others, but in intent all sins are rebellion against God’s absolute claim upon our lives. We think that some sins are worse than our own in order to justify our own behavior: what we did isn’t may that bad compared to what so and so did. This is really just an attempt to sup–press the truth by our wickedness (1:18) and shows how our minds have been perverted by sin (1:21-22, 28). So whenever we pass judgment on another, and play this comparison game with a Use attitude of superiority, we are in fact condemning ourselves before God.
This attitude of superiority itself is evidence of our sinfulness.
God Does Not Play Favorites
But even if we admit that we are just as sinful as everyone else, wouldn’t the Jew, or for that matter, the person born into a Christian family, have an advantage over others at the final judgment? The typical Jewish view of the time was that God would be more lenient toward Israel than towards the rest of the world, since He had chosen them to be His own people. After all, wouldn’t being exposed to God’s Word in the Bible and being a member of God’s people, the church, somehow give you an advantage? But Paul says that God does not show favoritism (2:11), since He is an impartial judge, who judges according to truth (2:2). That is, He judges according to the way things really are, and is not deceived by lies or illusions, but is faithful in adhering to a standard of strict and absolute justice. God cannot show special favor to a person or group of people at the final judgment, as if to hold some people accountable for their sins, but not hold others responsible. God has declared that death is the wages of sin (6:23), and therefore, He must always give this consequence to those who sin unless there is some kind of intervention on God’s part to prevent this inevitable consequence.
God’s Demand for Obedience
So Paul says "God will give to each according to what they have done" (2:6). At the final judgment, everyone’s lives will be examined by God, and those whose lives pass the test will make it into heaven. Whether a person is a Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, everyone must have the quality of life that pleases God. Everyone is judged by the same standard: whether or not we obeyed God’s will to the level that we understood it. Paul says, "to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, God 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" (2:7-8). Obedience to God is an indispensable prerequisite to salvation at the final judgment. In other words, without obedience no one will be saved.
Hey, wait a minute! I thought salvation was by grace, and not by works! How can God judge us according to our actions, if we are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8)? But accepting Christ is not a matter of signing the dotted line on a contract so that we will receive salvation no matter how sinfully we live. Obedience is not optional, as if we can accept Jesus as our Savior at age five, live a sinful rebellious life, and then expect to go to heaven. Rather, as with any agreement or contract, the new covenant has a condition that we must fulfill–we must be obedient.
Salvation Not Earned or Deserved
As Paul will go on to describe, this is not a matter of earning or meriting our salvation, since we have already sinned enough to make that option impossible, as if we were ever in a position to earn something from God or to put God in our debt. If salvation were a matter of what we deserved or earned, we would all end up in hell. No, we can never put God under some kind of obligation to save us, but God can and does lay down conditions or requirements to receive His gift of eternal life. Because He is God, He lays down the rules: If you live a sinful life, there are eternal consequences. If you want eternal life, you must obey God. But fulfilling the condition of obedience or persistence in doing good (2:7) does not mean that you earned or deserve salvation, only that God has promised in grace to give eternal life to those who fulfill the conditions. Salvation by grace is not incompatible with judgment by works. As we will discover in chapters six to eight, it is Christ who will fulfill the condition of obedience through us by living His life in and as us.
Christ is Obedient in us
Paradoxically, it is not we ourselves who fulfill the requirements of God’s law, since we cannot (7:14-25). Instead the God who makes an unrelenting demand for obedience at the same time perfectly supplies the means to keep it: He gives us His Spirit so that now Christ lives His life in us and as us (Rom 8:2; Gal. 2:20; Phil 2:13; Eph. 3:17). Christ fulfills the condition of obedience not only for us by dying on the cross but by daily living our lives. The church has tended to water down God’s demands so that they do not have to trust God for the supply. By watering down God’s demands, they never become desperate enough to seek for God’s provision. Jeremiah promises that we will find God if we seek Him with our whole heart (Jer. 29:13). But how will we find the motivation to seek God for the answer unless the impossible demands of the law force us to do so? Removing the demand destroys the one thing that drives us to find the answer. This would be the reverse of the good news. The demand remains, but God graciously provides the Spirit to produce His fruit in us. What God demands, He provides. It is not some effort of our own, independently of God, that produces the fruit, but the result of Christ’s replacement of Satan in our spirit-center that causes the change. We have one single choice that we are continually making: whether or not to trust God to do exactly as He promised: to live His perfect life through us. So our lack is met by His infinite supply, our need by His provision. But the requirement for obedience is never removed.
The Inner Law of Conscience
In verses 12 to 16, Paul discusses the standard of God’s judgment. Merely possessing the law will not be enough, one must do or keep the law in order to pass final judgment (2:13). God will judge those who have His law by that law and He will judge those who do not have the law by the inner law of conscience that He has given to all humanity (2:12, 14-15). Paul says the requirements of God’s law are written on our hearts, with our consciences bearing witness as to the moral quality of our lives (2:15), showing that we inherently know the difference between right and wrong, even though we may be misinformed as to the exact nature of right and wrong. We fail to live up even to the standard of our conscience, let alone to God’s perfect law! Even though the conscience is not perfect and can be corrupted, nevertheless, all human beings know right and wrong and know when they have wronged another person and when others have wronged them. We are moral beings by our very nature, able to discern right and wrong and make moral choices, which is the essence of being persons and which distinguishes us from mere animals who act from instinct without moral consciousness. So a day is coming when all the inner-most secrets of our hearts will be laid bare and we will answer to God for all the things we have done (2:16) and the standard He uses to judge us will be the level of knowledge which we possessed in this life. But no one will escape entirely, for all know right and wrong at some level.
Obedience is Inner Not Outer
In verses 17 to 29, Paul turns to the specific case of the Jews, who were under the illusion that because they were God’s chosen people who possessed the embodiment of God’s will in the law, they would not be held to as high a standard as the rest of the world, since they were favored by God. But this is not so, according to Paul. If anything, they will be held to the highest standard of all, since even while possessing such knowledge, they still failed to keep the law. Amos says to the nation of Israel: "You alone have I chosen out of all the nations of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your sins" (Amos 3:2). The more knowledge we possess, the more responsible we are before God to pro-duce fruit. Thus, the Jews have no grounds to brag about having the law, since they break it (2:17-24), causing God’s name to be blasphemed or treated as worthless by the Gentiles. Why should the nations pay attention to a God that the Jews don’t think worthy of obeying (2:24)? What counts is not an external circumcision of the flesh, a mere outward keeping of the law’s ritual requirements, but the inward keeping of the law’s inward spiritual intent, the result of having one’s heart circumcised (2:25-29). Circumcision was an outward symbol of having been separated from the world as a member of God’s people, so that unless one is also inwardly separated from the spirit of the world in one’s heart, the outward symbol means nothing. What the Jew failed to understand was that it was necessary not only to possess the law and keep its external requirements, but to keep it in the most deepest inward spiritual sense. God does not show special favor because one is externally a member of Israel or the church: it is true inward obedience that matters.
God’s Faithfulness to Israel
If God does not show special favor to Israel at the final judgment, wouldn’t God be unfaithful to His promises, specifically to save Israel (3:1-8)? This question may not seem important to most of us, since we are not Jews, but the question of God’s faithfulness is of prime importance. If God cannot be trusted to keep His promises to the Jews, how can we trust Him to do anything for us Gentiles? If God is unfaithful, how can we trust Him to be outpoured love for us and to save us? So Paul says: "Let God be true and every man a liar" (3:4). God’s faithfulness and justice must never be questioned, for unless we can trust Him to be both completely just and merciful in His ruling of the universe, we have no hope. So God is showing His faithfulness to Israel when He judges her for her sins, because He promised that there would be certain consequences for disobedience. If God did not judge sin, He would be like the unreliable and unloving parent who refused to give his children consequences for their misbehavior. Ultimately those children will destroy their own lives because the parent refused to do the hard thing by laying down and carrying out consequences for disobedience. If God saved people despite their disobedience, where would His love and justice be? So God, to be faithful, loving and just, must carry out the consequence He laid down for sin, the sentence of death which He threatened as the wages of sin.
God’s Answer to Man’s Failure
So Paul concludes that Jew and Gentile alike are under a sentence of condemnation (3:9). No one is righteous, no one seeks or fears God, no one does good, but rather all have become useless vessels (3:10-18). But since it is true that everyone in the whole world has failed to keep God’s requirements, and since it is also true that God will judge everyone according to what they have done, how will anyone avoid going to hell? How will anyone be saved if judgment is according to works? One might expect that humanity would do better once they were given the explicit laying out of God’s requirements in the law, but such is not, in fact, the case. Even with explicit knowledge of God’s will, humanity has not done better, but worse! Through the law we become conscious of sin (3:19-20)! The law only reveals the rebellion that lurks in the depths of the human heart. It cannot save us from our sinful condition. Therefore, no one will be declared righteous at the final judgment on the basis of keeping the law, because an external law cannot change the condition of the human he. If even with the help of the law the Jews are exposed as rebellious and sinful, how much more we Gentiles who were never under the law! So in giving the law to the Jews, God takes away our excuse that we never knew God’s will in order to keep it, for even when we have a knowledge of God’s will, we still fail to do it.
How will we escape such a hopeless situation? Paul has exposed our absolute powerlessness to save ourselves, a powerlessness that is universal and without exception: everyone is a slave to sin. Since God will judge us according to our deeds, how will anyone be saved? In Romans 3:21-8:39, Paul will give a two-fold answer to this dilemma. First he will show how God will deliver us from the consequences of our sin, namely the sentence of condemnation and death (3:21-5:21), and then he will show how that it is the Spirit of Christ who delivers us from the power of sin (6:1-8:39), so that we might have the obedience that is required at the final judgment, since it is He who is living our lives through faith (Eph. 3:17).
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 11 No 1
- God’s Obsession
- Editor’s Note
- British Update
- Moments with Meryl
- Excerpts from The Intercession of Rees Howells
- Get-together in New York
- Our Weakness Is Our Glory
- The Divine Intercessor
- Straight and Narrow and Uphill
- The Letter to the Romans
- To Think About
- Struggle of Romans Seven
- Questions & Answers
- The Only Two Natures
- God’s Promises
- The Mailbox
- New Light on the Twelve Steps
- A Look at a Book
- From God Unlimited
- Words to Live By