Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
The Impartial Judgment of God
It is important as we get started with chapter two to recall the overall message of Romans. This will help us keep our interpretation centered properly as we navigate this difficult terrain. Paul is convinced that God is fulfilling His promises to Israel in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Further, Paul believes that this gospel is now preached to all nations, and the Gentiles are included freely in the new covenant of promise. Paul believes that this one body of Christ—made up of both Jews and Gentiles gathered together by the Holy Spirit through one baptism—is the means of salvation to the whole world, indeed, to all creation. Moreover, Paul insists that Gentiles are included in the church by grace through faith apart from circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses. No one can be saved by what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.” Salvation is in Christ alone.
However, there is a certain contingent of the church—the Jewish-Christian contingent—that disagrees vehemently. They believe that the Gentiles should not be allowed full access to the Christian faith unless they become converts to Judaism through circumcision and law-keeping. Otherwise, the Jewish element of the church will be disqualified by Gentile association from worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem, and this is unacceptable to them. This group believes that Christ came to purify the worship of the Old Covenant, not to end it. Paul knows very well that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (cf. Romans 3:31; also Matthew 5:17), and yet, Paul sees this fulfillment as qualifying the Gentiles to enjoy full table fellowship with Jews in the New Covenant. There is strident disagreement here.
The heart of the controversy beats with a simple idea: the Jewish members of the church think they are more righteous than the Gentiles because they are circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. And, if the Gentiles want to join in this righteousness, they must submit to circumcision and pledge to keep the law as given to Israel by Moses. However, Paul zeroes in on the fatal flaw in their argument: Israel never kept the law. Furthermore, physical circumcision is not really circumcision at all. It never was! Physical circumcision has always been merely the outward sign of true circumcision, which is circumcision of the heart. Moses taught this, and the prophets shouted it over and over from the housetops. This is what Paul will begin to show in Romans chapter two and develop more fully as he goes along. Paul intends to puncture the pride of Jewish-Christian exclusivism and show the Judaizers that, rather than being more justified than Gentiles, they are more condemned than Gentiles because they knew to do good and did not do it, thus multiplying their condemnation.
In refusing to allow the Gentles full fellowship in the church, the Judaizers were judging the Gentiles as unworthy and condemning them to remain outside the New Covenant. This judgment-condemnation motif gets a lot of play in Romans. But now, in a surprising twist, Paul whirls around and points his long, bony finger at the judges themselves: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”
Hold it for a moment. This just became a little strange. The judge is practicing these things? The judge is guilty of the deadly sins just listed? Where did that come from? Surely the judge is not guilty of the very things for which he is passing sentence on others. And yet, that is exactly the point that Paul makes. Israel is guilty of the sins for which she despises the nations. Israel cannot disqualify Gentiles for being uncircumcised and breaking the law when she is more guilty of this than them.
Now, run the train of thought back down the track again. The gospel is the power of God to salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The righteousness, or the faithfulness, of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith as the faith of Jesus Christ spreads from Israel abroad unto the nations, and the righteous shall live by this faith. Then, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all who know the truth but willfully suppress it and turn to idols. Those who give themselves to idols are themselves given over by God to the idols they serve to be totally dehumanized and reshaped into the image of the beasts that they worship. The wrath of God that is revealed from heaven against this crew decrees that they are worthy of death, along with those who approve of their debauched way of life.
Of course, to the self-righteous, law-abiding Judaizer there is no doubt to whom Paul refers here. He simply must be describing those animalistic Gentiles, those lawless pagans, those filthy and uncircumcised dogs. And, of course, he is. There were Gentiles all over the world that fit Paul’s vivid description of the unrighteous. And yet, Paul is about to show us that Israel has out-Gentiled the Gentiles, out-paganed the pagans. We first noted where Paul was headed when he quoted from Psalm 106, the story of Israel’s sins against her Maker:
“They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea. Therefore he said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106:19-23).
Israel, while standing in the shadow of Sinai with the glory-cloud of God’s presence resting upon the mountain, turned to idols. Furthermore, they never stopped turning to idols until God finally scattered them throughout the nations just as Moses said that He would (cf. Deuteronomy 28-32).
Then, after Israel had returned from exile into Babylon, they still did not turn to the Lord with their whole heart, but developed an empty form of religion that practiced empty piety and replaced truth with tradition. This form of religion was the Judaism that Jesus railed against so vehemently. It was the form of religion that elevated the traditions of man over the commandments of God. It was the form of religion that dragged an adulterous woman before the crowds to embarrass Jesus only to slink away in disgrace when invited to cast the first stone as a public declaration of blameless perfection. It was the form of religion that refused to recognize Messiah when He came and, finally, nailed Him to a Cross. This was the same form of religion that now sought to disqualify Gentiles from the Christian faith. This was the form of religion that wanted to play judge. Paul is having none of it.
Paul will have none of it because he knows all about it. He has “been there, done that” as folks like to say. Paul knows all about this because, before converting to the Christian faith, he was a model Judaizer. He says, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). Paul knows very well about judging others only to discover that he, the judge, was guilty of the very crimes for which he was prosecuting others.
Paul testifies elsewhere that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless” (Philippians 3:5, 6), and yet, he was struck down on the road to Damascus with the revelation he was not the blameless law-keeper he had imagined himself to be. Rather, he was a murderer! That must have been quite a shock.
So, Paul knows a thing or two about “passing judgment on another” while “you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Paul knows about Israel’s hypocrisy here because he had lived it. He had embodied it.
And speaking of embodiment, there is another character in the background here that will come into closer focus in chapter three. When Paul whirls on the judge and shouts that he is the one that is truly condemned, there are rising echoes of Nathan the prophet confronting David over his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. This subtle allusion will become a direct comparison when we get to chapter three and Paul starts quoting Psalm 51. There is no doubt that this narrative casts Paul in the character of Nathan with the Judaizers sitting in judgment like another David perched self-righteously on his throne. More on that anon.
Israel, Paul says, you have no excuse. You have condemned the Gentiles for idolatry while bowing before the very same idols. You disqualify pagans for their uncircumcision and law-breaking while you, too, are uncircumcised in heart and shatter the commandments with persistent disobedience. You know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things, and yet, you keep on doing them. Do you now think that you will escape the wrath of God, the wrath that is revealed from heaven against the unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness?
Your judgment on others is presumptuous. God’s kindness is intended to bring you to repentance, but instead, as His wrath is delayed, you waste your time pointing fingers at others. And now, the time is coming when both Jew and Gentile will be judged for their sins. Do not think that Jerusalem shall escape the fate you wish upon Rome. Both shall be destroyed on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment shall be revealed. Everyone will get exactly what is coming to them. The Jews and the Gentiles that do evil will receive wrath and fury. The Jews and the Gentiles that do good will receive eternal life. For God shows no partiality.