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Romans 2 - The Bad News (1:18 - 3:20)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

1: Paul and his Gospel (1:1 - 17) 2: The Bad News (1:18 - 3:20)
3: The Good News (3:21 - 5:21) 4: Sanctification (6:1 - 8:39)
5: Election and Mercy (9:1 - 11:36) 6: Living the Gospel (12:1 - 15:13)
7: Travel plans, Greeting (15:14 - 16:27)

The first major section of the book is two chapters of unremitting bad news, without a glimmer of hope. Paul shows that before a holy God, everybody stands guilty and therefore deserving judgement, whether Jew or Gentile. Both desperately need the gospel, in order to be saved from the wrath of God.

This is the foundation for the gospel. The idea of God's wrath may be unpopular today, but without it, the gospel becomes a nonsense, leaving nothing for people to be saved from. People need to recognise their need of salvation first, before they will be able to receive the liberating message of the Gospel. It is interesting to consider how Paul’s approach should affect our methods of evangelism.

Gentiles deserve wrath for their rebellion (1:18-32)

This part of chapter one gives us a rather depressing insight into the condition of people without Christ, and the causes of the downward spiral that human society is in without the message of the Gospel.

Even though Gentiles have not had the great spiritual privileges of the Jews, who had been given a special revelation of God, they still stand guilty before God. This is because they have not recognised and responded to the revelation of God they have received. They cannot claim the excuse of ignorance, as Paul declares that what can be known about God is shown by looking at the created world (v19). This is what is known as General Revelation, the revelation of God which is available to every person on earth, and at every time in history. The sin of the Gentiles is that they have suppressed this truth (v18) and turned to idolatry, and demonstrate this in their ever-increasingly wicked behaviour. As we read this section, we should note the use of the third person pronoun, "they", as Paul refers to the Gentiles.

Wrath on those that suppress the truth (1:18-20a)

In contrast to the righteousness of God being revealed (v16), now the wrath of God is revealed. God’s wrath is not merely an antagonistic emotion, like human anger, but is his holy hostility to evil and wickedness, which is expressed by his action in judgment. This judgement often comes through the natural consequences of man's sin and rebellion, and should be seen as a foretaste of the final day of judgement. However, God continually holds back his final judgement because of his mercy, waiting for people to come to repentance and turn to him (2 Pet 3:9).

The Gentiles had no special revelation of God through scriptures, but do have a general revelation of the Creator. This revelation is not enough to bring salvation, but is enough for people to know that God exists, and that he is the Almighty Creator of the universe. The physical creation itself is a witness to God, showing that God is eternal, invisible and powerful.

I am convinced that if people study science with a truly open mind, they will come to believe in God. It is a tragedy that science is so often seen as a reason not to believe in God. Before Darwin, scientists would often say that they were thinking God’s thoughts after him. For me personally, this is a significant passage, as I came to believe in God through studying Biology at university. I was suddenly struck during a lecture that the amazing complexity of living things could not have possibly have just happened by chance, but must have been made by an intelligent creator. I am sure that there is great potential to use this general revelation through creation as a very effective tool of evangelism, particularly to young people. This general revelation of God through creation is referred to in a number of places in the Bible, including the Psalms: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Ps 19:1).

God’s wrath is on the Gentiles because they suppress this general revelation of God the Creator, in order to avoid accountability before him. All man-made religions and belief systems suppress the truth. People are afraid of truth, because truth demands changed lives, humbling ourselves by admitting we are wrong, repentance from sin, and coming under the lordship of Jesus. In the Bible, there is a strong connection between God being the creator and God being the lord.

Exchanged glory for images (1:20b-24)

The existence of general revelation leaves people without excuse. They cannot claim to be ignorant. By not believing in God, they are rejecting the revelation they have received, and are therefore guilty before him. Even though the Gentiles could see God through creation, they did not honour him. Their ignorance is caused by their hardness of heart, because they do not want to repent and change their actions or beliefs.

Gentiles had rejected the natural revelation of God through his created world, and instead had turned to idolatry, exchanging the worship of the true God for worship of part of his creation, worshipping the creature rather than the creator (v25). In the first century context, we have to remember that the Romans worshipped the Greek gods, which were always portrayed as human beings. Worshipping parts of the physical creation continues today, whether in pagan religion, or in modern references to 'Mother Earth', or 'Mother Nature' , or even 'Evolution' with a capital 'E'. The modern celebrity culture is also another example of worshipping the creature rather than the creator.

The Gentiles, especially the Greeks in Paul's time, claimed to be wise, but Paul declares that because they have rejected God, they have actually become fools (v22). Their so-called lofty thoughts and philosophies have actually had the opposite effect to what was intended. These have confused and darkened their minds and led them into greater spiritual darkness, rather than into greater illumination. This is a great warning against secular education for today.

God gave them up to impurity (1:24-25)

Men gave God up, so in return God gives them up to human ideas, letting sin go unrestrained, which ultimately leads to devastation. However the fruit of sin is not always reaped immediately. This is how God shows his wrath in history. If people turn away from him, he lets them do what they want, and receive the natural consequences of their moral decline. When the restraints are removed, mankind gradually becomes worse, all because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie (as v23).

In this passage there is a downhill progression. The first step is the rejection of God and the truth of his revelation. This is inevitably followed by idolatry, which in turn leads to immorality and a decline in moral standards. This progression is shown by the repeated use of the phrases 'exchanged' and 'God gave them up':

1. mankind exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images (v23),
      A. so God gave them up to impurity (v24)
2. mankind exchanged the truth about God for a lie (v25)
      B. so God gave them up to degrading passions (v26)
3. mankind exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural (v26)
      C. so God gave them up to a debased mind (v28)

God gave them up to degrading passions (1:26-27)

The second stage comes because they rejected God, and turned away from his standards of righteousness, so their moral values have become corrupted. God gave them up to more and more sin, particularly corrupted moral values in sexuality, with the specific example of homosexuality. The sexual distinctions created by God are removed. They are now reaping the penalty of this sexual corruption in their own bodies, perhaps a reference to sexually transmitted diseases. Because they rejected God and turned to a lie by worshipping they physical creation rather than the Creator, God gave them up to the impurity they desired in their hearts. God allowed them to suffer the consequences of the lifestyle they have chosen. God's judgement is being expressed through natural cause and effect.

God gave them up to a debased mind (1:28-32)

The third stage is the degeneration of human society. People’s minds have also become debased because of their rejection of God, resulting in a downward spiral of degradation into more and more antisocial lifestyles and attitudes. Paul now gives what we can call a 'sin list', which includes a wide variety of evil attitudes and godless actions, against other people, and against God. We need to be careful in reading this list that we do not use it to point the finger at everyone else, not thinking that we also could be guilty of some of these. Paul addresses this hypocritical attitude at the beginning of chapter two. It is also worth noting how Paul mixes actions that all would agree as being wicked, such as murder, with other sinful actions that many of us are guilty of, such as gossip and covetousness.

His final condemnation of the Gentiles is that they not only do these things, but also applaud others that practice them (v32). Not only are people guilty of these actions and attitudes, they are leading people astray and encouraging others to follow their bad example.

In summary, the charge against the Gentiles is rebellion against God through their rejection of the revealed truth, and the result of that rebellion is immorality. God’s wrath is being expressed by allowing them to experience the natural consequences of their lifestyle. This affects the whole of society, not just individuals.

The downward spiral described in this chapter is in complete contrast to current popular view of evolution, that mankind is basically good, and continually improving through better knowledge and education. The biblical view of mankind since the fall is that he is basically bad, and without God, human society will get worse and worse.

Hypocrites deserve wrath (2:1-16)

After the strong condemnation of the Gentiles, it is easy to imagine some readers thinking that they are not like that, and congratulating themselves. Paul now turns to these people and condemns them for their hypocrisy. They are passing judgement on others, but are doing the same things themselves, and so condemn themselves. God judges everyone impartially without any hint of favouritism, whether people are Jew or Greek.

a. If you pass judgement, you condemn yourself (2:1-5)

In the first part of chapter two the pronoun changes to "you" singular. Paul addresses "Whoever you are" (v1,3), which could include both Jews and Gentiles. Later in the chapter he specifically addresses Jews, "if you call yourself a Jew" (2:17).

The person addressed here is congratulating himself, and judging the people who do "such things" (1:32). There was a problem in the Roman church with the Jews passing judgement on Gentiles (14:4,10), so it is most likely he was particularly addressing Jews. However, not all Gentiles were (or are) like those in chapter one, so it is possible that some more moral Gentiles should be included here.

Whoever this person is, he is criticising the people described in chapter one, pointing the finger at them, passing judgement on them, but according to Paul he is being a hypocrite - he is doing the same things himself. This means he condemns himself, and comes under the wrath of God. This person needs to learn that he cannot escape God's judgment just by judging others, having high standards for everyone else, but not himself.

This person appears to have no idea that he (or she) also needs forgiveness. He is presuming on the grace and kindness of God. Because he does not recognise their own sin, he does not have a repentant heart. Instead, his heart is hardened against the kindness and forbearance of God.

God will repay according to deeds (2:6-11)

Paul now shows the principle by which God judges: he will repay according to people’s deeds (v6). He judges in righteousness, without any partiality. Judgement is on the basis of works, with rewards for doing good, and wrath for doing evil. In judgement, God shows no partiality - there is no difference between Jew and Greek. For both, judgement is according to deeds. However, we have to remember that according to Paul, all are heading for the wrath of God (3:10), no one can be justified by the law (3:20), and all have fallen short of the glory of God (3:23).

At first sight this passage can appear to contradict Paul’s teaching on salvation by faith, but we should note the heart attitudes being expressed here. Those who do good, seek for glory, and will receive eternal life (v7), while those who are wicked, and are self-seeking, will receive wrath (v8). It is not just actions, as the good set their hope on the unseen future glory, while the wicked just look to what is seen in the present. So salvation is by faith, but judgement is by works. There is public impartial judgement to demonstrate God’s righteousness.

Again, Paul shows the major theme of there being no distinction made between Jews and Gentiles. Both Jews and Gentiles will be judged according to their works. However, both groups will fail to reach God's standards, thus showing that both groups need the gospel of grace. The Jews cannot claim any exemption from judgement based on their privileges. In fact, in God’s sight, greater privilege means greater responsibility. More will be expected from the Jews because of the greater revelation that has been given to them.

No favouritism in God’s judgment (2:12-16)

Paul continues his theme of the equality of both Jews and Gentiles in judgment. It is not enough for the Jews merely to possess the law, they need to keep that law, because they will be judged by it. In chapter one, he has already shown that Gentiles come under God’s wrath.

However, he now introduces a surprising thought. Some Gentiles instinctively do what the law requires, even though they do not have the law. This passage is difficult to understand, but shows an important principle. He states that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts (v15), and their own conscience bears witness to that law. As part of the general revelation of God, there is an inbuilt moral sense of right and wrong in every person on earth, whether Jew or Gentile. A basic recognition of right and wrong exists in human society. Even non-Christian nations have similar laws against murder, protection of property, and protecting family relationships. We can also see this demonstrated when even very young children are quick to say, "It is not fair". We can ask, "How do they know what is fair?". When non-Christians are very eager to spot any hypocrisy, and to criticise Christians if they are not perfect, it shows that they are aware of God’s standards, even though they do not admit it.

This is the second aspect of general revelation. In chapter one, God reveals himself through the physical creation, now it is through this inbuilt moral sense. A individual person’s conscience works together with this, making them feel guilty if they break this inner law. The problem is that the conscience is easily damaged, and the guilty feelings gradually disappear when a person persistently ignores them.

What Paul is saying is that there is a universal knowledge of God’s law. It is inbuilt into the physical creation, and inbuilt in the human heart, as the same God created both and gave the law. This is called natural law. God’s creation works best in God’s ways. No human being can claim complete ignorance of God’s laws. Because of this, we can work with the knowledge that God's law is good for society, and good for our children, and there is nothing wrong with trying to bring Christian values into society. God made human beings and knows how they work best, both individually and in society.

There is no distinction in moral knowledge, both Jew and Gentile have the same inbuilt law and conscience. They have both committed sin by disobeying the law they know. Therefore they both have become guilty before God and will receive the same judgement.

Jews deserve wrath for their presumption (2:17 - 3:8)

In contrast to the Gentiles, who only had general revelation, the Jews had the great privilege of receiving special revelation. The OT is the story of how God made himself known to different individuals, established his covenant with his chosen people, and gave them the law. They were able to come into a relationship with God through their faith, and live as his people.

However, the Jews fell into the error of claiming, enjoying, and even boasting about the privileges, without living up to the responsibility these implied. Thus they fell into the sin of presumption and hypocrisy, and therefore, together with the Gentiles, deserve God’s wrath.

Claiming privileges of having law (2:17-24)

Paul is addressing an individual Jew, challenging his hypocrisy and presumption. The Jews’ first great privilege was their possession of the law and their claim of being God’s chosen people. Paul is contradicting the idea that possession of the law meant righteousness before God. Jews considered Gentiles as being blind and in darkness, needing the Jews to guide them, which encouraged Jewish pride. They were boasting in the law, but were dishonouring God by breaking that law.

Through a series of questions, Paul exposes their hypocrisy (v21-23). They preach righteousness by law, but are breaking the law themselves (Gal 6:13). It is not sure why Paul mentions the robbing of temples. Pagan temples often contained gold and silver from the gifts dedicated to the god, which people might plunder (cf Acts 19:37).

The hypocrisy of the Jews meant that instead of fulfilling their purpose in being a light to the Gentiles, they were having the reverse effect. Through living their lives based on the law, they should be demonstrating the nature and character of the One True God to the Gentiles, and attracting them to Him. Instead, their behaviour is causing the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of God (v24, quoting Is 52:5). This is a challenge to us today in the church. The church should also fulfil this role in society of being a light in a dark place, and being a witness to God.

Real circumcision is a matter of the heart (2:25-29)

The second privilege was the sign of the covenant, circumcision. The Jews had a false confidence in their outward rituals. They trusted in their Jewishness, that they were circumcised and were physical children of Abraham, as if this alone could save them from the wrath of God. Paul declares that physical circumcision alone is useless, unless it is accompanied with obedience to the law, and that true circumcision is internal, rather than external. Shockingly, he states that a Jew who disobeyed the law was no better than a Gentile, and a Gentile who obeys the law will be considered righteous (v25-26).

He redefines two concepts, which would be highly offensive to the Jews. The first was that a real Jew was someone who was a Jew inwardly (v29), and the second was that true circumcision was a matter of the heart, with a person being "cut off" from a life of sin, to live a holy life. Even in the law, God desired circumcised hearts (Deut 10:12-16). Stephen had accused the Jews of having uncircumcised hearts, opposing the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), in effect being spiritual Gentiles. This redefinition leads straight to the next question (3:1). He concludes with a play on words, a true inward Jew receives praise from God (v29) - Jews get their name from the name 'Judah' meaning 'praise' (Gen 29:35).

So, both the Gentiles (ch 1), and the Jews (ch 2) stand guilty before a holy God. Neither have lived up to the light they have received, and therefore both deserve his wrath.

What advantage has the Jew? (3:1-8)

In a number of places through the book (eg: chapters 6 & 9), especially when Paul is particularly addressing Jews, he employs a literary technique called a diatribe. It is as if he has an imaginary opponent across the room, who is firing questions and objections back to Paul, who then responds to them. Often, when his answer is 'No', he says 'By no means!' (eg: 3:4). This is a very strong contradiction, which can be translated in a variety of ways. Perhaps a possible paraphrase would be, "You must be joking!"

Paul’s imaginary opponent asks a series of logical questions, in response to what Paul had just been saying. If Jews face the same wrath as the Gentiles, and the valued Jewish privileges were nullified through their behaviour, then what advantage is there in being a Jew?

The first question is about the covenant. The Jews had the great advantage and immeasurable privilege of being entrusted with the Word of God in the Scriptures. The problem is that they were unfaithful, so the second question is whether their unfaithfulness nullifies the faithfulness of God (v3-4). Paul’s answer is, "By no means!" The faithlessness of the Jews does not reflect on God. God holds them to account, and his faithfulness is magnified in contrast to the faithlessness of the Jews. He supports his answer with a quotation from David, speaking after his sin with Bathsheba, God is righteous and shown to be righteous when he judges (Ps 51:4).

The third question is about God’s justice (v5-6). Is God unjust to inflict wrath on people? Paul’s answer is to deny that God is unjust, and say that being God he has the right to judge people. Then the final question is why God can be glorified by the unfaithfulness of the Jews (v7-8). There is no real answer to this question, except to say that their condemnation is deserved.

Law condemns all, both Jew and Greek (3:9-20)

After proving that Gentiles are condemned because of their rejection of God’s revelation to them, and that Jews are condemned because of their hypocrisy, Paul now concludes by stating that both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin because the law cannot help them in any way.

Both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin (3:9-18)

The question is asked, "Are the Jews better off?". The answer is, 'No', because Paul has just shown that both Jews and Greeks are equally condemned and under the power of sin. He strings together six quotations from the OT, mostly from the Psalms, showing that no one (Jew or Gentile) is righteous before God. Using descriptions of the human body, he uses these quotations to show the depraved nature of mankind. The sixth summarises the rest, "there is no fear of God before their eyes" (Ps 36:1).

In Jewish thinking, the answer to all this sin is the law. But Paul shows that the law is not the answer, because all the law does is to bring condemnation.

The whole world is accountable to God (3:19-20)

Paul now concludes the section of bad news by declaring that no one can be justified before God by the works of the law. Righteousness based on the law is impossible. Both Jew and Gentile fail. The Gentiles fail because they failed to live up to the revelation of God given to them through the created world. The Jews fail because they failed to keep the law which they were so proud of having.

The law is a harsh task-master, it has no power to help in any way. It has no power to save, but can only condemn. The function of the law is to show that God's standard is total perfection, and therefore to show mankind's inability to reach that standard, so through the law comes the knowledge of sin (v20). The primary purpose of the law is not to bring salvation, but to expose sin. It acts like a mirror, to show us our guilt before God. People become aware of their own sinfulness and hopeless situation before a holy God. The law shows our need of a saviour, and so drives us in desperation to the cross.

In the next section, Paul gives the solution. The righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law, but can only be obtained through faith in Jesus Christ (v22).

Related articles

1: Paul and his Gospel (1:1 - 17) 2: The Bad News (1:18 - 3:20)
3: The Good News (3:21 - 5:21) 4: Sanctification (6:1 - 8:39)
5: Election and Mercy (9:1 - 11:36) 6: Living the Gospel (12:1 - 15:13)
7: Travel plans, Greeting (15:14 - 16:27)