As we have already said, the first step of the argument is already well enough complete so far as the laying out of the gospel of individual salvation is concerned. Paul has established that all men are guilty, under sin and the wrath of God. They have been given over by God to a depraved mind and heart to do all the wicked desires that are found within. Paul could immediately move on to the next step of his outline of the gospel if he so desired, but he has much more to say about this first point in specific reference to the Jews, and so he waits until the last portion of chapter 3 to make the next step. This intervening section of 2:1-3:20 is the first major content insertion that demonstrates the true focus of Paul’s attention in the book of Romans. It reveals that his focus is not only upon a simple individualistic gospel but upon a universal gospel as it relates to the whole world in its largest scope, to both Jew and Gentile.
One common view of 1:18-3:20 is that Paul first addresses the Gentile situation (1:18-32) and then moves on to deal with the Jew in 2:1-3:20. That is fairly true, but I would suggest that maybe there is a slightly better way to analyze the argument here, not one that radically changes the whole conception of things, but one that will perhaps make things a bit more clear to us in the end, nonetheless.
First, I would like you to count how many references to the Gentile world we find in 1:18-32. How many did you find? The answer is that Paul never mentions or names the Gentiles in that section. Rather, what we find is that Paul speaks of “all” unrighteousness and of “men” in general and universal terms. He lays out a blanket view of mankind, not selecting only a portion of the world or populace of it for condemnation and guilt. All men are guilty and under God’s wrath.
He goes back all the way to the creation, as we have noted, thus making things universal. He condemns men for suppressing the truth. Who suppresses the truth? The Gentiles only? I think not. The Jews are more infamous for their persecution of truth than even the Gentiles, it seems to me.
Why, then, is it so common to refer 1:18-32 to the Gentile world? I think it is probably a combination of two factors. First, Paul does explicitly deal with the Jew by name in the upcoming section, so there is a reasonable idea that the Gentile world has already been dealt with. However, this is not the only way to see the relationship between these two passages, as a treatment first with one part of the whole (Gentiles) and then with the other part of the whole (Jews). Rather, what we have is instead a dealing with the whole of the world (both Jews and Gentiles being included, all men being in view without distinction) and then a return to focus more narrowly upon a part of that whole (eventually, at least, the Jews become the explicit focus in this section).
The second factor, I think, is that the sinfulness described in 1:18-32 seems to be more difficult to attribute to a good Jewish man who would abhor such things as the idolatry there described and the other such gross sins. However, this is to fall into the very error that Paul here addresses in 2:1-3:20, as I will try to show in the coming chapter.
In 1:18-32, Paul declared mankind as a whole to be guilty of much sin and God’s wrath consequently to be against them with God having turned them over to depravity. However, having laid all men under this blanket condemnation, some men will begin to take exception to that approach and attempt to exclude themselves from being lumped together with all those others who are such wicked men. They do not think it fair that Paul should lay at their feet also such gross sins as predominate in so much of the world. They are not like the others, they protest.
This protestation might come from any quarter and party, and we will see that this is reflected in the language Paul uses in chapter 2. We will also see, though, that Paul has it primarily in expectancy that the Jew will be the one to make such an argument. He therefore is going to take the time to show how this first truth of the gospel relates specifically to the Jewish people, for there is indeed both a pretext of an argument to exclude the Jew from such inclusion with the rest of the world and also a real and significant matter of difference between them and the other peoples of the world. Paul now is going to take the time to lay out the real condition of the Jew in light of this first truth of the gospel.
All men are guilty of gross sin, Paul says, having rejected God and in turn having been given over by Him to all sorts of wicked depravity. A pious hearer of Paul’s argument gives a hearty amen to all that Paul is saying, and begins to point the finger at all of those wicked men out there who do such evil things and receive the due punishment that they deserve. He begins to talk in such language as the praying Pharisee in the temple: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men” (Luke 18:11). This pious hearer does not even begin to think that he also is under the judgment of an angry God as are all other men.
Paul now turns his attention to address such a protest. The language changes as Paul begins to speak in the second person singular: “You.” He speaks to the man who condemns the other, and he asserts that the man who sees the wickedness of these terrible sins in others only becomes a witness against himself likewise. Why? Because all men do the same things. If the other man is worthy of condemnation for his actions, so also am I who judge him, for I do the same. This is true of all men:
Therefore, you are without excuse, O man, everyone of you who judges. For in what you judge the other, you condemn yourself, for the same things you do who judges. (2:1)
In one sense, we are not entirely right to say that Paul is now turning to the Jew when he begins chapter 2. He is not naming the Jew (yet). In fact, he is again very general in his terms and simply addresses this protestor as “O man.” He might be either Jew or Gentile alike. Any man who sees wickedness and calls it such might be open to the temptation to think that he himself, because he sees that truth and recognizes the all important distinction between righteousness and sin, is therefore better than the rest.
There are plenty of examples in history of “noble heathen,” as they are sometimes called, who have had a very exalted insight into morality and truth and have taken strong stands against the moral corruption of their age and society. These enlightened Gentiles would stand in agreement with Paul in condemning the sin of mankind. The Jewish nation almost as a whole would certainly be more apt to do so, but by no means do they have a monopoly on this position.
Yet, though this language is tailored to fit any man of any race, and Paul does not explicitly address the Jew until 2:17, yet we are not entirely inaccurate to say that Paul has already half-way transitioned to considering the case of the Jew. Though the form of address remains general (and this is important to note in order to bring in whatever Gentiles might make the same protest), Paul is thinking that the Jew particularly might make this argument. The fact that he naturally and seamlessly transitions to addressing the Jew by name in v. 17 as a mere continuation of the argument is evidence enough itself to show that the Jew was already prominent in his mind from the start. But even before that direct address to the Jew, we see that the contrast between Jew and Gentile is already dominating the language:
Both of the Jew first and also of the Greek. (2:9)
Both to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (2:10)
There is no partiality with God. (2:11)
As many as sinned lawlessly…As many as sinned in law. (2:12)
The Gentiles who do not have law… (2:14)
What we have is a gradual revealing of Paul’s main focus upon the Jew. He begins with the general “O man” and then begins piece by piece to reveal that he is thinking primarily about the Jew. This comes out first in the simple addition of the phrase “Jew first and also the Greek.” Next, we see that Paul is explicitly naming the Gentiles as the focus of one side of the contrast of two sides, neither of which will receive partiality from God. Then, before you know it, Paul is addressing the Jew directly by name, and the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Certainly any Gentile who might protest is answered with the same general point as Paul begins with, but Paul’s real focus is on demonstrating that the Jew has no real basis for such a protest against being included in the general condemnation of all mankind that Paul has already made. Paul is going to treat of the particular points that the Jew might use to form a claim to better standing with God. There are two dominant points that Paul will make against the Jewish pretext of righteousness.
First, the Jew feels that he is better off because he recognizes and affirms righteousness over and against sin. Surely, he thinks, he is a better man because he agrees with what God says is right.
The initial protestor was one who condemned the sin of others when he saw it, thereby showing that he knows what sin and righteousness are and even that he agrees that sin should be punished and that righteousness is what is good. Once named, the Jew is the one who has much confidence in the truth of God’s law given to him. He preaches and teaches the truth to others. He tests and approves that which is right and holy and good.
Paul, however, points out the foolishness of thinking that merely affirming righteousness in word makes your righteous. He declares to the Jew that deeds are what matter far more than mere words. Though the man condemns others for sin, thus affirming righteousness in word, what account is that if he himself actually does the same things? When words are of one kind and deeds of another, the deeds are what count far more. When it comes time for God to judge all men, he will not judge according to what words were spoken, what religious theory was subscribed to, or what theoretical position was taken, but rather, what deeds were done. God will repay all men according to their deeds, Paul says. To those who work and accomplish what is good, life will be given.
One of the key traits of this part of the discussion is the role of the Jew’s receiving of the law of God. This takes a huge and central importance in many parts of the argument in Romans. Here is the first place where it enters largely into the picture. The Jewish protestor feels that since he has been given the law and has received it and approved of it, God must indeed be pleased with him. The law is what here represents the reception of truth and the understanding of righteousness. It is one of the distinguishing marks of the Jew that makes him feel he must receive separate treatment from the Gentile.
Paul levels that claim to rubbish by asserting the obvious fact that it is what is done rather than what is said that is the more important point. Though it will be returned to and dealt with at much fuller length later, we already see here the point that the law is of little value in saving the Jew if it does not result in an actual change of life from sin to righteousness. Merely receiving the law and hearing it and approving of it is not enough. It is the doing of the law that God demands and looks for on judgment day:
For it is not that the hearers of the law are righteous with God, but rather the doers of the law will be justified. (2:13)
The second key argument and pretext of the Jew is the rite of circumcision. Though the bulk of the argument here rests upon the law, the theoretical acceptance of righteousness, yet Paul also assails the Jew who places confidence in his circumcision as justifying him with God.
For circumcision indeed profits if you practice the law, but if you should be a transgressor of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. (2:25)
This matter of circumcision is a second large matter of Jewish pride that serves in his mind to distinguish him from the sinful Gentile. How many times are Gentiles referred to as the “uncircumcised” by the haughty Jew? In truth, God Himself established circumcision as a means to distinguish His people from the Gentile world, but it had become an empty meaningless ritual for the Jew, as Paul here states: “Your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” Again the point returns to the central requirement of obedience to the righteous ways of God. If a Jew keeps the law in righteous living, then, wonderful, his circumcision is of value. But if he doesn’t live a righteous life, then his circumcision is empty and meaningless.
Let’s remember now that the basic point of this passage focuses on a protestor who wishes to distinguish himself from the guilty mass of mankind. Paul, on the other hand, asserts that all men are in the same boat, the Jew included, for the distinguishing marks of the Jew are no help in the end; receiving the law and circumcision will do him no good so long as he keeps on living sinfully. Paul’s assertion in chapter 1 that all unrighteousness is receiving God’s wrath holds true; the Jew is no exception to that fact.
In bringing that point to a clear conclusion, an important emphasis results: There really is not any difference between Jew and Gentile. This is one of the key points to understand: There is a basic unity among all men. Jew and Gentile are basically alike, not basically different. This is right at the heart of Paul’s desire to lay out the universal gospel that is equally true and necessary for all mankind, both Jew and Gentile. Throughout Paul’s thought in Romans, this will recur again and again. He is bent upon showing us that all men are of the same nature before God. Understanding the identity and unity of mankind is very important for understanding the universality of God’s true plan of salvation for the world. This great conclusion is reached by various facts at this point in the argument.
First, the Jews feel that the Gentiles are the ones who are the sinful people, not them. What does Paul assert? He shows that they themselves are guilty of the same things that the Gentiles are. The Jews indeed may have learned by this point in their history not to have physical material idols for worship (as is the sin in the description of chapter 1), but they also are full of sacrilege in their own way, Paul asserts. They are just as much thieves and adulterers as well as the Gentiles, though they perpetrate their sin in a more “refined” way than the vulgar pagans do. Though the Jews retract in horror at the terrible sin of the pagan world, the truth is that they are guilty of the self-same things in a different form. There is no essential difference between them. This is an important fact in recognizing the flow of Paul’s thought. He is in no way willing to let the Jew off the hook. It is not as if the Gentiles are guilty of those terrible sins in chapter 1 and the Jews must be dealt with in a different way. Not at all. Paul here makes clear that, yes, even the Jews are guilty of those same things described in chapter 1. At heart, all men are the same.
Second, the Jews take great pride in the fact that they have knowledge of God and knowledge of righteousness through the law that was given to them. Paul asserts that the Gentiles also have knowledge of God. All men have knowledge of God, he says, and all men have rejected that knowledge. God manifests Himself to all men through creation, as we have seen, and Paul even says here in chapter 2 that the very pride of the Jews in this arena, the law, is also not their exclusive property, for the Gentiles also show that they have knowledge of this law by doing the things of the law. Thus, this knowledge of God is not a fundamental difference between Jew and Gentile either:
Whenever the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature should do the things of the law, they, the law not having, are to themselves law.
Third, and stated in the most profound and clear way of all, circumcision also is not a point of difference between Jew and Gentile. This is perhaps the most difficult of the three for the Jew and correspondingly the most profound and important of the three for us to understand in order to grasp the depth of the wonders of Paul’s gospel, which is the gospel of God Himself. The Jew might reasonably feel rather confident that circumcision at least, if nothing else, separates him from the Gentile. Certainly no one could claim that such a cut and dry physical mark could fail to be a difference between Jew and Gentile. And yet Paul does exactly that.
How can Paul make this claim? He declares that true circumcision is not a matter of a physical act done in the flesh, but is instead a spiritual matter of the heart. For this reason, true circumcision might just as well be attributed to the Gentile. Paul states that if the physically uncircumcised man keeps the righteousness of the law, then he has actually fulfilled the spiritual meaning of circumcision and will be counted as circumcised. Contrastingly, the circumcised man who does not keep the righteousness of the law will be counted as uncircumcised. Thus, Jew and Gentile alike are in the same boat once again:
Your circumcision has become uncircumcision. If, then, the uncircumcised should guard the righteous decrees of the law, will not his uncircumcision be reckoned unto circumcision?…For it is not the one in the open who is a Jew, nor that which is visible in the flesh that is circumcision, but rather, the one who is in secret is a Jew, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit, not by the letter, whose praise is not from men but rather from God. (2:25-29).
Now we have come to see how Paul reaches the first great step of truth, that all men are alike before God. All men have truth; all men have sin; all men will be accepted by God alike if they do what is right from the heart. And now that we understand Paul’s arguments here, we are already beginning to grasp some of the tremendous spiritual principles of the gospel. It is a spiritual reality that God proclaims. The gospel is not about the superficial pretexts that men so often focus upon. This gospel truth is profound and changes so much of how men think. The Jew as well as the Gentile must give careful heed to this great revelation of God’s righteous salvation to all mankind.
And we men today must also learn the same lesson as the Jew. Most likely, you who are reading this book consider yourself a Christian, as I do myself. You are probably like me and have been privileged to have been taught the word of God in your life. There is a reasonably good chance that you have been baptized and are a part of a local church. Does this make you any different than the rest of mankind? Are you now on the “in” and somehow better than those who are outside the fold?
The way that Paul deals with the Jew here in this section has a lot to tell folk like you and me. If we feel insulted to be told that we too, unless God fills us with His Spirit within, are equally sinful men as the rest of the world, we have not yet well understood God’s word. If we somehow think that our advantages of the knowledge of God’s word and perhaps being raised within the church make us different from the world outside, we need to inspect our hearts far deeper.
The truth is, in fact, that in various parts of the world, the majority of the population would be good, decent, moral people who would express astonishment at such a terrible picture as chapter 1 of Romans presents. They, just as the Jews of Paul’s day, would stand ready to decry such sinners as miserable wretches. The message of the Bible has had a large influence in many parts of the world, and many millions of men have been taught what righteousness looks like. For all those millions of men, then, it is chapter 2 of Romans that is a much more powerful and striking argument. To all of us who find ourselves agreeing with the message of what righteousness is and ready to condemn those who practice gross wickedness, we are confronted further with Paul’s powerful response: “What does it matter simply to agree with what is right? You won’t be judged according to that, but according to whether your life is truly righteous itself or not.” This is the word that needs to be heard by many millions of men.
It is a timely message, and it has been and will be so in every age, that each and every man must confess himself to be in the same condition of sin before God. It is not a question of whether we have heard God’s word and voiced assent to it as true. It is not a matter of whether we have passed through some initiatory ritual and are now a part of “the people” or “the church.” Nothing of our advantages of birth or heritage, whatsoever they might be, changes the nature of who we are. All men are alike. Those who are raised with advantages (and there really are true advantages to be had, as we will see in the next section) run the great risk of not discovering the true nature of their own heart. The deceitful heart of man will latch on to any potential means for covering the unpleasant truth of depravity and sin.
Today, many who have been raised in church have not yet discovered the depth of truth that all men are terribly wicked before God in their natural state. So many men have not yet been humbled but are proud in their hearts and minds, puffed up with unfounded confidence because they have knowledge of God’s word. May God humble us all alike to recognize our true nature before God and come humbly to Him in search of cleansing and salvation.