The second chapter of Romans is cast in very solemn hues. Human sin and wickedness have been set out in uncompromising terms. Now, before Paul begins to move on to his main theme of divine intervention in grace through Jesus Christ, he must issue a salutary warning which seems to be directed mainly to his fellow Jews. The opening words of chapter 2 are, ‘You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at what point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you towards repentance?’
These severe words suggest that Paul, a Pharisee by upbringing and training, was very conscious of a tendency for Jews in his day to point the finger at others’ sins while trivializing their own. The Lord Jesus charged the Pharisees and scribes, the ultra-religious Jews, with serious hypocrisy.
It seems to be a similar concern that Paul had in his mind at this point in his writing, although the principle applies to Jew and Gentile alike. His words here suggest that the apostle is addressing men in general and Jews in particular. He seems to be directing his remarks to a wider audience than those in the Church of God in Rome. This is a feature of this epistle and its universally important teaching. The brothers and sisters in the Church, receiving his letter, would understand how he was writing. They would recognize a very universal appeal to the human heart as well as teaching for the Church itself.
So let Jews, says Paul, however orthodox in their religious practices, beware of this danger of hypocrisy. In fact, the apostle sharpens the issue for them in the last two verses of chapter 2. He writes, ‘A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly … No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly … Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.’
In the verses between, Paul explains something which is not set out so plainly anywhere else in the New Testament. That is that God, the righteous Judge of all the earth will pass judgment quite impartially on all men whatever their lifetime circumstances, and whenever they lived in human history. For it is in this passage of Romans that we have the words, ‘For God does not show favouritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. And again, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets, through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.’
All of this ties in perfectly with what the Lord Himself taught the religious Jews of His day. He said, as recorded in John 5:28-29, ‘A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.’ To be a Jew by birth would not by itself ensure God’s approval in the day of judgment. And to be a non-Jew who had never heard of the law of Moses would not condemn a person at the final assizes.
There is a close correspondence between a person’s heart condition and his actions. So Paul writes of God judging by works, as James also taught. ‘Faith’ (meaning profession of faith), James said, ‘without works is dead’ (2:26). There is always some outward evidence of true faith. Although the glorious burden of Paul’s subsequent teaching in Romans is justification by faith, there is no conflict with the approach to divine judgment indicated here. What is revealed here with a clarity almost unique in the New Testament, is that men and women down through history, who never enjoyed a revelation from God such as the Jews had in the law of Moses, will be judged by the response of a God-given conscience – a response either of repentance and faith, or of unbelief, towards ‘what may be known about God …? because God has made it plain to them’ (1:19).