Romans 2

The proof of human depravity and need is not yet complete. There is another character of evil contrasted yet connected with the description in the last verse of chapter 1 and most offensive in the sight of God. Men judge others and yet do the same things, and thus condemn themselves. How can this in any way arrest or even mitigate the sentence of God? It was and is common among speculative men, moralists, and the like. In truth it is no small aggravation To say “we see” exposes us, who none the less practise iniquity, to hear from the just Judge of all, that “our sin remaineth.” For the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, and the judging in others what they themselves live in justifies their own righteous doom. Say what they please, God’s sentence is according to truth upon those that do such things. He will, He must, have reality, and conscience knows it. Instead of open sympathy with others who sin, they may judge it as wrong; but if they do the same, how can such moral trifling, or those guilty of it, stand before God?

“Wherefore thou art inexcusable, O man, every one that judgest; for wherein thou judgest the other, thou condemnest thyself, for thou that judgest doest the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth upon those that do such things. And dost thou reckon this, O man, that judgest those that do such things, and doest them, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Ver. 1-4.) The truth is that philosophy knows not God, and so easily forgets His judgment, as it never can conceive His love. It is self-satisfied and has man for its object, not God. Hence His lavish goodness and His patience are despised, and His end in all is a lesson never learnt.

Repentance is the work of God in the soul on the moral side. It is inseparable from the new nature, and flows from the energy of the Spirit as faith in Jesus does; in no way the preparation for faith, but its accompaniment and fruit. Nevertheless, by this I do not mean faith exercised as to the infinite work of Christ. There may be as yet but a looking to Him longingly and hopefully; and, along with this expectation of good from Him according to God’s word, that word turns the eye of conscience inwardly, and the man now converted judges himself as well as his ways before God. This deepens also, instead of diminishing, as the soul grows in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. There was always repentance as truly as faith wrought in souls; and though this may have assumed a legal shape under law, repentance is not in anywise done with now, but is wrought all the more profoundly under the gospel. Different schools of doctrine have drawn a wrong inference, one from Romans 2:4, the other from 2 Corinthians 7:10. On the one side it is thought that the perception of God’s goodness is repentance; on the other side that it is godly sorrow for sin. Scripture says nothing of the sort in either case, and intimates that, while repentance always supposes a change of mind, it goes much farther, and is a matter of conscience in the light of God, and not a purely intellectual process. As the goodness of God leads to repentance, so sorrow according to Him works repentance. There is such a thing as sorrowing unto repentance, as there is repentance unto salvation. It is thus a far deeper dealing with the soul than many suppose. Self is judged without reserve, and the will goes wholly with the new man. Sorrow according to God may still have a struggle: when one repents truly, the evil is disliked inwardly, and one has got free from it. “Surely after I was turned, I repented; and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.” (Jer. 31:19.)

Moralizing without conscience has a peculiarly hardening effect, and the long-suffering goodness of God is then misused to slight His leading. God is not mocked; it is only thou, O man, who thus deceivest thyself. “But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart thou treasurest to thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of God’s righteous judgment.” (Ver. 5.) Such is the solemn sanction which accompanies the gospel: not national, earthly, and providential judgments, but divine wrath, wrath already revealed from heaven, to take its awful course in its day when the day of grace is over. The law inflicted its temporal chastisements; with the gospel goes the revelation of “how much sorer punishment,” even eternal; and this most of all when the gospel is refused or abused. For there is a righteous judgment of God, “who shall render to each according to his work: to those that in patience of good work seek for glory, honour, and incorruptibility, eternal life; but to those that are contentious and disobey the truth and obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath.” (Ver. 6-8.) The appraisal and the rendering are individual; and, as we shall see farther on, the secrets of the heart appear.

It is important to note that eternal life is viewed not only as a present possession for the believer in Christ, but as the future issue of a devoted pathway for His name. The Gospel of John develops the former; the other three show us the latter; as our apostle elsewhere in this epistle (Rom. 6:22, 23) gives us both brought together in the same context. But now, says he of Christians, “being made free from sin and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” On the other hand, the wages of sin, though death, are not death only, but after it the judgment, as Hebrews 9 states in accordance with what we have here.

In the next verse the apostle for the first time points directly at the Jew, no less than the Gentile, as obnoxious to divine judgment. We have seen with what consideration he approaches this subject, which, once cleared, is to hold so prominent a place in the epistle. In Romans 1 he had begun with the bright side, and affirmed the gospel to be God’s power unto salvation to every one that believes, both to Jew first and to Greek. Now, in Romans 2, when handling, not the gospel that saves the lost, but the immutable principles of God’s righteous government, he brings out the alternative — ”tribulation and anguish on every soul of man that worketh evil, both of Jew first and of Greek; but glory, and honour, and peace to every one that worketh good, both to Jew first and to Greek; for there is no regard of person with God.” (Ver. 9-11.) Such are His ways. Time, place, people can make no radical difference with Him, save that possession of privileges brings with it a prior responsibility, and this with evident justice. If the man who enjoys religious light works out evil notwithstanding, is he less guilty than his less favoured fellow-sinner? If he heeds the warning and testimony of God, working out that which is good, God will not withhold “glory, honour, and peace;” and neither last nor least stands the Jew thus found in His sight, though, as Peter truly declared on a great occasion, God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that fears Him and works righteousness is acceptable to Him. How this is made good in souls every believer knows. It is the fruit of His own grace; for it is not in man to direct his stops, nor in good in him or to be got from him, save when faith enables him to do His good pleasure: without faith it is impossible to please Him. Nor is it for a moment to be allowed that Romans 2 can clash either with Romans 1 or with Romans 3. Without such grace of God and faith of man there is no good about him: on the contrary, he needs God’s power to save him. But God is here laying down His own inflexibly just ways as dealing morally with man. The believer, no doubt, is the only one who works good, the only possessor therefore of glory, honour, and peace; and while the Jew (as long as he had a place of relationship with God, and even till judgment manifestly closed it) had the precedence, the Gentile is not overlooked, but comes up in gracious remembrance before God, as we see in Cornelius and his house.

But, next, the apostle goes farther, and formally lays down that, while in every instance God will judge righteously, superiority of privilege entails deeper obligations and corresponding strictness in judgment: “for as many as without law have sinned, shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned under law shall be judged by law (for not the hearers of law are just with God, but the doers of law shall be justified. For whenever Gentiles, which have no law, do by nature the things of the law, these having no law are a law to themselves; who evince the work of the law written in their hearts, their consciences also joining its testimony, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing) in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel by Jesus Christ.” (Ver. 12-16.) Thus there can be no prescriptive title of exemption to the Jew in the day of judgment, as he fondly hoped. The very standing as God’s witness in the earth, which that people had enjoyed in contrast with the Gentiles, bears with it their liability to a closer scrutiny when God deals, not in external inflictions on the nations, but with the heart and its ways in His sight, however hidden from man. Could even the Jew question the equity of this procedure? He must assuredly abandon his own fatal presumption — that the righteous God would close His eyes to the wickedness of His own ancient people: if he still maintained, as he ought, the special advantage of Israel, he could not deny their augmented responsibility compared with the Gentile.

In other ways also these passages are of great weight and value. Men are apt to reason on this as on other subjects after an abstract sort. From one true God who gave His law, as He had made and shall judge all men, many assume that all alike are under that law, and shall be judged by it, and that no other method is possible without sullying God’s truth, righteousness, authority, and honour. But he who is subject to the word of God, and stands intelligently by faith in His favour, knows that the dogmatism of a Pharisee is no better than the scepticism of a Sadducee, that neither knows the scripture, and that, as the latter denies the power, so the former sets aside His grace and also His righteousness. For the apostle elaborately shows as an incontestable truth here and elsewhere that there were men without law, as certainly as others under law. Who they were is equally clear and sure: Gentiles had not law, Jews had; and this was a main element of the different ground on which they should be tried. In vain would they weaken what the apostle says in verse 12 by that which he adds in verses 14, 15, that Gentiles, having no law, whenever they do the duties of the law, are a law to themselves, spite of having no law. It would be better to seek to understand the latter verses which need a little attention and reflection, rather than to overthrow what is so plain and positive in both; for in these passages, as everywhere, the doctrine is that Gentiles were without law, in contradistinction from Jews who were under law. (Compare Rom. 3:19, 1 Cor. 9:20, 21.) In Romans 1, where Gentile responsibility and guilt are treated, it is not a question of law, but of the testimony of creation and of the traditional knowledge of God they at first possessed. Here, in Romans 2, the Jewish boast of the law is turned to a serious purpose, as it is the basis of the apostle’s proof that they cannot escape from being judged of God by the higher and fuller standard of His law.

It is argued by some who would neutralize these differences, that Gentiles are said to have the law written in their hearts. Why not look into what the apostle actually says and means, instead of twisting a few words into a contradiction of his express doctrine? It would be strange indeed, and say but little for Christianity, if heathens possessed as such that which the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:15, 16.) affirms to be one of the grand and distinctive blessings of the New Covenant. This kind of theology teaches that the heathen have already the law written in their hearts. But the apostle does not stultify himself, as this would imply, — does not predicate of the heathen that immense mercy of God which the New Covenant holds out to faith based on redemption in Christ. What he really teaches is that whenever (for indeed it was scanty and rare) Gentiles do by nature the things of the law, they evince the law’s work written in their hearts. He says not that the law, as these uninstructed men assume, but that its work, was written therein. For instance, let a heathen gather somehow the duty of honouring his parents: this, though he may have never heard of the law, is a law to him. So far the work of the law (not the law itself) is said to be written in his heart. His conscience thenceforth accuses or excuses him according to his conduct; and God in judgment will take all fully into account by and by. But this in no way interferes with the opening principle that some sin without being under law and so perish, as others more guiltily sin under law, and so shall be judged; for the question in judgment is not privilege but fidelity according to what we know or may know. Not the law-hearers are just with God but the law-doers shall be justified. This is invariably true; as scripture declares, faith accepts and judgment will display.

Accordingly we have the character of judgment declared in verse 16 conformably to what the apostle calls his gospel. Providential scourges, earthly chastening, or destruction, are true dealings of God and so revealed, not only in the Jewish scriptures, but in the prophecies of the New Testament also. But the judgment of the secrets of men is a different and far deeper truth: and this finds its suited revelation in the gospel as Paul presented it, where man is judged fully, both outwardly and inwardly, in presence of the saving grace of God and the heavenly glory of Christ the risen man, who is the life and the righteousness of the believer. This is Paul’s gospel, and God’s judgment of man (yea, of his heart’s secrets by Jesus Christ in the great day that hastens) is according to that gospel. (Comp. Rom. 1:17, 18.)

The apostle now advances another step in his appeal to conscience. He addresses himself next to the Jew, not classing him with the Gentile alone. Did the Jew value himself on his singular place among men, on his possession of a divine revelation, on the true God as his God, on the knowledge of His will, on his own consequent ability to try the things that differ and hence decide for the more excellent? did he assume a conscious superiority to his Gentile neighbours, through confidence in himself as thus standing on a vantage ground which gave him to look down on the wisest of other nations as but blind, and in the dark, and foolish, and babes, being destitute of that embodiment of knowledge and truth which the law afforded himself? Be it so, but if all this were so, how was it with the Jew in fact? The greater the privilege, the less excusable if he was faithless to the light he had and as bad as the heathen he despised.

“But if9 thou art named a Jew, and restest on law, and boastest in God, and knowest his will, and provest the things that differ, being instructed out of the law, and hast confidence that thou thyself art a guide of blind, a light of those in darkness, an instructor of fools, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and of truth in the law: thou then that teachest another dost thou not teach thyself? thou that preachest not to steal, dost thou steal? thou that sayest not to commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou who boastest in the law, through transgression of the law dost thou dishonour God? For the name of God on your account is blasphemed among the Gentiles even as it is written.” (Ver. 17-24.)

Thus severely, but severely because it was with the irresistible force of truth, does the apostle turn to the utter shame of the Jew the very ground on which he had entrenched himself in pride and vain glory. If there was conscience, he must own himself more guilty than the Gentile; if there was none, his insensibility would not make his sin and folly less manifest to all who fear God and estimate man aright. On his own showing his boasted knowledge of the law brought no saving power along with it for himself, whatever fuel it might supply for his arrogant abuse of it in contempt of others. Who, then, more signally dishonoured God? Was it not written even more strongly still in their own prophets? What said Isaiah (Isa. 52:5.)? and what Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:20-23.)? No doubt their foreign lords made them to howl; but was it not true that Israel profaned Jehovah’s holy name among the heathen whither they went?

The issue of the reasoning is given in the concluding verses. A religious form cannot cover the contradiction morally of its own spirit; and on the other hand, where the spirit is truly found, God will approve of this spite of the absence (it may be unavoidably) of the form. He will and must have reality in that which concerns men in relation to Himself. “For circumcision indeed profiteth, if thou keep the law; but if thou be a transgressor of law, thy circumcision is become uncircumcision. If then the uncircumcision keeps the requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision; and the natural uncircumcision fulfilling the law, judge thee that in the way of letter and circumcision transgressest law? For he that is outwardly a Jew is not [one], nor is that which is outward in flesh circumcision, but he that is hiddenly a Jew, and circumcision of heart in spirit, not in letter, the praise of whom [is] not of men but of God.” As the principle is clear, so are the persons who alone are acceptable with God. External circumstances cannot over-ride His character and ways and judgment. The apostle does not here enunciate the fundamental truth of either Christianity or the Church in which dispensational differences vanish away in the light of a Christ dead and risen in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek. But it is of deep interest to observe how the profoundly just dealing of God which he is asserting, and which could not but commend itself to the conscience even of him whom it most condemns, fits in with that mighty development of truth, the revelation of the mystery, which it was Paul’s province above all others to make known to us. As on the one hand the mere outward Jew is nothing nor the rite abstracted from its meaning; so on the other hand that only has praise with God which is hidden and heart work, not in letter but in spirit. Such an one, he strikingly adds (in allusion it would seem to the name of Judah and of a Jew) even if his brethren curse, or men hate, shall have his praise of God.

9 But if ( εἰ δὲ) is unquestionably the right reading, not ἴδε (“behold”) as in the Received Text and Authorized Version, which seems to have been a correction to ease the sense, if not a mere blunder in copying.