Dan Popp
Jews, too
Romans: The most important book ever written
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By Dan Popp
October 26, 2010

All our righteous acts are like filthy rags. — Isaiah 64:6b NIV

Welcome back to our Romans book club. Please use the coasters. At our last meeting we saw that the "good news" starts with the worst possible news for the Gentiles.

Since they refused to see it was rational to acknowledge God, God has left them to their own irrational ideas and to their monstrous behavior. And so they are steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice, and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite. Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God, rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents, without brains, honour, love or pity. They know what God's verdict is: that those who behave like this deserve to die — and yet they do it; and what is worse, encourage others to do the same. [1:28-32, Jerus]

In Romans 1 Paul has been depicting the heathen as utterly ruined by their own wickedness and pride. But while he's been speaking, an even prouder, even wickeder thought has arisen in the minds of religious people: "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners...." [Gal. 2:15 ESV] In Romans 2 God turns to the monotheists, the chosen, the "good" people, and demands: "What are you smirking at?"

Chapter 2

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. [NIV]

In the first chapter God finds the pagans to be "without excuse." Now He says to the religious people, "You have no excuse." Is the problem that the Jews were judgmental, as some scholars suppose? I think it's that, even though their verdict against sin was right, they failed to apply it to themselves:

We know the doom of God falls justly upon those who practise such vices.... [Moffat]

The syllogism is: The Gentiles are lost sinners. You Jews do the same things as the Gentiles. Therefore, you are lost sinners. Let's briefly check verses 21-24:

You proclaim, 'Do not steal'; but are you yourself a thief? You say, 'Do not commit adultery'; but are you an adulterer? You abominate false gods, but do you rob their shrines? You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." [NEB, RSV]

The Law requires that we love God with our entire being, and love our neighbor as ourselves. As someone well said, "None of us here has done that for ten minutes, ever." Back up to Romans 2:3 and following:

Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice 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 stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. [ESV, NIV]

It's difficult to penetrate the hard shells of Sunday Schoolers. So Paul, like Jesus, will hammer relentlessly: You're deceived — you've set the bar for yourselves way too low. God isn't grading on the curve. Your filthy rags will not get you into the Wedding Feast!

Now remember where we are: Romans 2. Paul is telling the Jews that they are no better off than the pagans. People who lose their place in Paul's line of reasoning often get confused by what's coming next.

For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone 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. [RSV]

If you've just gotten the notion that you can get to heaven by being a nice, respectable guy or gal, you've forgotten where you are. The key thought here is that God will treat Jews and Gentiles the same. That idea was so outrageous that the Jews tried to kill Paul for saying it (see Acts 22, for example).

Earlier Paul argued that Jews sin like Gentiles; therefore they will be punished like Gentiles. Now he shows them the flipside of the coin: some Gentiles obey better than Jews, therefore they will be rewarded better than Jews. But he hasn't retracted what he wrote in Chapter 1. All of Paul's readers acknowledge that the Gentiles are self-condemned; that's the foundation for both of these arguments.

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For not the hearers of the law are justified before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. [RSV, KJV]

It seems to me that these two groups encompass all of humanity. Either we have "sinned apart from the law," or "sinned under the law" — and you do not want to be in that second group. Jesus said, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." [Luke 12:48b, NIV]

And now we've come to one of the most abused verses in all of Scripture:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves. [KJV] ...they have a law in themselves... [Phillips]

This "law unto themselves" is the favorite phrase of Universalists. But remember where we are. This is Romans 2. Jews are in the same boat with Gentiles regarding God's requirement of rightness: they don't have it. We learned in Chapter 1 that God has allowed the pagans to dethrone Him, and consequently to debase and damn themselves — so their "internal law" is not saving them. Just now in 2:12 we read that those who have sinned outside the Law will "perish." In Romans 3, Paul will say that there is not one right person on the planet.

Then he'll say that God's Law has never rescued anyone — that's not what law does. So how could this shadowy, incomplete "law unto themselves" save a pagan if the full, explicit, perfect Law cannot save?

Finally (if you're counting, this is the fifth bit of evidence for the integrity of Paul's argument) the very next line destroys the misinterpretation:

...who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them. [NKJV]

If their thoughts accuse them even once, then they are lawbreakers, not law-keepers. As James wrote, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all." [2:10, NASB] No, Paul has not lost his mind and started contradicting what he says everywhere else in the New Testament; he's continuing to say what he started to say: Even though the Gentiles are lost sinners, some of them are more godly than you. So much for your reliance on the Law!

I think it's clear that the principles of Romans 2 apply not just to Jews, but to altar boys like I was, legalists, churchgoers of all stripes; everyone who trusts in his own efforts. This is a particularly blasphemous form of self-worship. For, "If we can be justified through the law, then Christ's death was needless." [Gal. 2:21b, Knox]

We cannot take the hand of our Rescuer while we're clutching our idols. Once we see — really see — that we have no hope in ourselves, we're ready for the good part of the good news.

© Dan Popp

 

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