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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Romans Series 5: God's Impartial Judgment, Rm 2:1-16

Romans 2:1-16 (Given here is an even more formally equivalent translation than the NASB or NRSV, also with a non-traditional syntactic choice made on v.7 that is not decisive for any central doctrine or the main point of this passage, as well as a preference for 'condemned' rather than 'judged' as the translation of krith─ôsontai in v.12. See endnote for references to precedents for these choices).

Let's heed the Word of God as it comes to us through the word of man, namely, the inspired apostle Paul. The text is longer this time, but necessarily so because it is truly one unified sub-argument of a larger unit:

"1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O every man of you who judges, for in what you judge the other, you condemn yourself, for you, the one judging, practice the same things. 2 And we know the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things. 3 But do you reckon this, O man who judges the ones practicing such things and yet doing the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you scorn the riches of His kindness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not realizing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart, you store up wrath for yourself on a day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will recompense each man according to his works. 7 To some, on one hand, according to endurance of working of good, glory and honor and incorruptibility, as seeking life eternal. 8 To those, on the other hand, being selfishly ambitious and disobeying the truth, but obeying unrighteousness, wrath and anger. 9 There will be affliction and distress on every soul of man working evil, of Jew first and of Greek; 10 but glory and honor and peace to everyone working good, to Jew first and to Greek. 11 For there is no respecting-of-persons with God. 12 For as many as sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and as many as sinned under the Law will be condemned by the Law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles not having the Law by nature practice the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a Law to themselves--15 they demonstrate the work of the Law written in their hearts, bearing joint witness with their conscience; and their thoughts will be accusing them or even defending them between one another, 16 on a day when God judges the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus."

What we have before us once again, in this larger section on the wrath of God against sinful men, is a sobering section focused on the weighty reality and certain of God's judgment. From 1:18 onward so far, Paul has been explaining God's wrath against ungodliness and idolatry, especially as expressed in His handing sinners over to their own lusts for their further dishonor.

In this new section we shift our temporal focus from how God is revealing His wrath in history, to a much more climactic scene. We will now stand and look on at a greater scene at the end of history, before the great white throne of the heavenly Judge, and we will learn about the proceedings that will take place there.

Sixteen verses is a lot to handle at once, and this section is especially jam-packed with content that has caused even the most highly trained faithful biblical scholars to disagree with one another on this point or that point concerning its interpretation. However, I think that it is important for us to keep the section together, reading it as a whole, in order to keep ourselves focused on Paul's overall direction of thought, and in order to keep the smaller verses and sentences under consideration within their larger context.

I will ask and answer several poignant questions about the text, but only once I have given a very brief overview kind of exposition of it--paying attention to the most important aspects of its structure and content.


Verse 1 contains Paul's direct answer to an anticipated attitude his audience may have in response to what he has just been saying at the end of chapter 1. What was he saying? He was listing off a host of different kinds of sin which ensnare ungodly people who reject God. What is the attitude Paul is countering here? Evidently it is one of judgmental self-righteousness. It is coming from the kind of person who says, "I am or did such-and-such because I am good, unlike those wretched people you were talking about in chatper 1. I'm glad they'll get the due penalty of death for their sin! Serves them right! I'm safe from that kind of judgment."

Pauls response: "You have no excuse, because you do the same things! When you judge others for these sins, you condemn yourself because you yourself are also guilty of sin."

Verse 2 sets the theme for the rest of the section: "...the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things."

Verses 3 through 5 then speak to the absurdity of the self-righteous sinner's attitude. In essence, Paul says, "Do you really think that you, abusing the kindness of God meant to lead you to repentance, and practicing the very same sins for which you are judging others, are going to escape the judgment of God? No way! Your hardness of heart, and stubbornness, and lack of repentance, are only storing up wrath for you."

Verse 6 is in a sense the thesis of the rest of vv. 7-16, and echoes Psalm 62:12: "God will recompense each man according to his works."

Verses 7 through 10 serve to explain verse 6 more fully, and they constitute a structure known in literature as a "chiasmus." That's where a series of ideas are presented in a certain order, and then presented once again in reverse order usually with slightly different language. In other words, it would go something like 'ABBA' or 'ABCCBA' or 'ABCDDCBA', etc.

Here, the outer verses of v.7 and v.10 describe positive situations of God's recompensing man for his works: v.7 glory and honor and peace (or simply eternal life) for those who endure and persevere in doing good works, seeking these things; v.10 glory and honor and peace to everyone working good, to Jew first and also to Greek.

The inner verses of v.8 and v.9 contrast that with negative situations of God's recompense: v.8 wrath and anger for those who selfishly disobey the truth but obey unrighteousness; v.9 affliction and distress for those working evil, for Jew first and also for Greek.

Verse 11 asserts God's impartiality: "...there is no respecting-of-persons with God." Because God's judgment accords with works, there is no favoritism in God on people of certain color, age, gender, or--as we will see--people with certain amounts of revelation or common covenantal privileges like the Jews had. In fact, all of chapter 2 of Romans here probably has first century Jews in mind who were boasting in their external covenant privileges, possession of special revelation (like the Law), and bloodline relationship to the Jewish fathers of old.

Verses 12 through 16 form another small sub-section, and the main point is to prove what Paul said in verse 11 about God's impartiality. He does this by reference to the case of the Gentiles. Paul says that sinning apart from the Law (like Gentiles do) results in death, just like sinning under the Law results in being judged by that very Law and therefore also results in death. Verse 13 declares, "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." So Paul has countered the argument that possessing the special revelation of the Law as a Jew in the first century gives you a free pass out of judgment by God. Not so. It is not hearing the Law, but doing that matters.

The appeal to the death of Gentiles who sin apart from the Law raises a question, namely, 'How can they be held accountable for a standard about which they did not know?' Paul's answer is found in verses 14 and 15. He says, in essence, that when Gentiles occasionally live by the moral norms of the Law, they demonstrate that they have an internal awareness of those norms, written on their heart, as a conscience suitable to render them accountable to God for transgressions of that Law. That this is the thrust of verses 14 and 15 is not only shown by their connection to verse 13--namely, "for" or gar at the beginning of verse 14--but also by the end of verse 14. It says basically that their conflicting thoughts--that is, their self-condemning or self-approving thoughts about their moral behavior and how it squares with God's laws--will be accusing or defending them on the Last Day.

From there he moves smoothly on into what we know as verse 16: "on a day when God judges the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus." This finalizes the section of vv.1-16 and repeats the assertion that God will, in fact, judge all men at the end of history. And most astonishingly, He will conduct this judgment according to works by the agency of His Son, Jesus. And, perhaps surprisingly to us, this notion, according to Paul, accords with the gospel.

So there is a brief run-through of the section, with only the major points observed.

Many questions have been raised, but we will now deal with the most poignant and immediately relevant.

This scene of "judgment according to works," especially expressed in the language of verse 13 ("For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified"), seems at first glance to be in strong tension with other teachings of Scripture. Not only that, but it seems to be in tension with other teachings of Paul himself! And not only that; it seems to be in tension with some things Paul will teach about justification in the very next three chapters of Romans!

In chapters 3 through 5 of Romans, as we will see, Paul defends the notion of justification (that is, being declared righteous before God) by faith apart from works. And he does so not as a side note, but zealously, as one of his main points!

So what do we have here? A contradiction in God's holy, inspired Word? For the faithful, this is of course not an option.

But even for the skeptic, can we really readily admit that the apostle Paul--the highly-intelligent theologian and writer--changes his mind or forgets something within the space of a couple of chapters? Surely not.

We must look more closely at the text, therefore, and learn what exactly it is saying.

Let this be our default mode of operation when we come to difficult parts of the Scriptures! When we don't see how two verses or passages line up with each other, let us not throw up our hands and reject the inerrancy of Scripture; nor let us too quickly assign everything to indiscoverable divine mystery. To be sure, there are some things that are secrets which belong to the Lord until the Last Day or even after that. But let us not draw that line too quickly, and let us dig ever more deeply into the Word, meditating on it day and night for months and even years!--so that we can learn about the layers and deep riches of the wisdom of God that He has revealed in His inexhaustible Word.

Two basic, over-arching approaches have been taken by orthodox, evangelical interpreters with regard to this passage and its relationship to justification by faith alone. I have examined these two basic positions in detail, and have more than once over the past few years changed my mind on which one is a more accurate understanding of Paul's intentions here in this text. For this reason, even though I think I know which one is more accurate--and will give some reasons for that position--I will not be overly dogmatic about it.

Whichever position you take, it does not do final damage to the overall thrust of Paul's argument here. Also, the two teachings which are the focus of each respective position on this text are both taught not only elsewhere in the Bible, not only elsewhere in the New Testament, but even elsewhere in Paul. Therefore, no central Christian doctrine hangs on the correct interpretation of this particular passage, although I believe the correct interpretation should make more sense out of chapter 2 of Romans as a whole.

Ok, here's what I'm talking about:

When Paul talks here about the "doers of the Law" being the ones who "will be justified," and how judgment accords strictly with works and not anything else, he could be describing one of two situations:

1) A hypothetical situation where perfect obedience on the part of human beings serves as the ground or merit of justification. Or, in "covenant theology" terms, this is a perfect fulfillment of the stipulations of the covenant of works. Unfortunately, no sinful human being can manage to meet this standard, and therefore all Paul is doing in this section, as a wider part of the section 1:18-3:20 is setting the divine standard of perfect Law-keeping, so that he can demonstrate every person's inability to justify his or her self by works, and thus everyone needs the gospel in which Christ fulfills the Law on their behalf and dies for their sins. This position has been embraced and taught by John Calvin, Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, F.F. Bruce, Charles Hodge, and others.


2) A "reified," or "real" description of how the final judgment "really will" be carried out according to works, for both believers in Christ and non-believers. The obedience and Law-keeping here described, however, is not perfect, but enduring and observable. So good works are here described as necessary evidence at the last judgment of a person's identity as a faithful covenant member of God's people, united to Christ by vital faith, and dressed in Christ's perfect righteousness. This position has been embraced and taught by St. Augustine, Thomas Schreiner, John Piper, and R. C. H. Lenski, among others.

Again, both of these ideas are biblical ideas taught in the rest of the New Testament, even by Paul himself. The question is simply a matter of which idea this particular passage is meant to teach us.

Decent arguments can be made for each position, but I do lean toward the second one, and will give several reasons for that.

I want to say as a preface, though, that the single strongest argument for position 1, in my opinion, is that v.13 must be understood as a part of the broader context of 1:18-3:20, where Paul's chief burden is not to teach us how to be saved at the last judgment, but to render us hopeless with regard to the sufficiency of our own good works to commend us to God. Therefore, it may seem very strange for Paul to insert in the middle of that argument a verse or small section that views our good works as positive instruments of final vindication at the last judgment!

Nevertheless, I want to point out a few things that lead me to think that is precisely what Paul has done.

1. Though part of a larger context meant to drive us away from hope in our own good works and toward receiving Christ and His work by faith, this section has a more specific aim, namely, that of silencing the first century Law-breaking Jew who thinks they are exempt from God's judgment because of their covenantal privileges like circumcision and having the revelation of the Law on stone tablets. Therefore, even if this section is about imperfect Law-obedience as a real necessity and guarantee of final justification (which I take to mean "vindication"), it serves to silence illegitimate Jewish boasting, thus promoting the end of getting people to turn to Christ as their hope instead of themselves. This is being done after chapter 1 has put a stop to all men's excuses but especially Gentiles who before Christ did not have special revelation but nevertheless had the revelation of God's power and divinity in the created order.

2. The language Paul uses in this section sounds very far from being merely hypothetical, and actually in my opinion sounds very close to being imperfect obedience!

a. Notice Paul's use of the idea of "repentance" in verses 4 and 5. Paul accuses the Jews not of imperfection of Law-keeping but of hardness, stubbornness, and unrepentance.

b. Notice in verse 7 "according to endurance of working of good;" Endurance is often connected with ideas of overcoming obstacles, and perhaps growth. More importantly, although it is a genitive in the Greek here, we can still see that the very notion of endurance speaks of ongoing or habitual activity, not necessarily all-encompassing, never-failing activity.

c. Notice in verse 8 the idea of "not obeying the truth." It reminds us of the phrase Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and Peter uses in 1 Peter 4:17 "obey the gospel." It may also remind us of Paul's terminology "obedience of faith" from back in chapter 1 of Romans. It seems the contrast made in the chiasmus of verses 7-10 is not between perfect Law-keepers and sinners in general, but between the unrepentant and those who do "obey the truth" in repentance and faith in the gospel and so get a new direction for their lives of growing Law-keeping and obedience.

d. Notice that in verse 16 that this judgment is "according to [Paul's] gospel." It would surely have been more difficult for Paul to talk about a hypothetical judgment according to perfected works which is "in accord with the gospel" than it would have been to talk about a real judgment according to imperfect works serving as evidence of regeneration and covenant faithfulness (and therefore union with Christ by faith) as being "according to the gospel."

3. There is no clear signal of hypothetical thought in Paul's mind here. In fact, he repeats five times in slightly different ways the reality and certainty of this coming judgment and its impartial nature of being "according to works." Verse 2: "we know the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things." Verse 6: "For he will recompense each man according to his works." Verse 11: "For there is no respecting-of-persons with God." Verse 13: "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." Verse 16 "on a day when God will judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus." One may wonder what else Paul may have said to "reify" this judgment scene and its nature in our minds--that is, what else could Paul have said to convince us that this is truly how things are going to go down on the Last Day?

4. Next is the strongest argument for position 2 that I am arguing for, and I think it is decisive, although proponents of the other view have their own well-thought-out responses even to this argument. If we take chapter 2 as a whole section--which we should do--we see that part of this unified section includes Paul talking about Gentiles who are physically uncircumcised being "counted" or "reckoned" as circumcised by keeping the Law! Paul goes on to talk about the nature of true Judaism as inward, and true circumcision as being that which is of the heart by the Spirit, not the flesh by the "letter." Paul is there speaking of the circumcision of the heart as a metaphor for regeneration or spiritual rebirth. For this spiritual miracle to happen to the covenant people of God as a whole was the great hope of the coming New Covenant for the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and arguably Moses in Deuteronomy 30. In the New Covenant age of the greater outpouring of the Spirit on the people of God, this great hope is realized for the people of God as a whole (although it is true that Old Covenant saints were regenerated the same way, and it is true that not all members of the visible Church of Christ today are personally regenerate). Therefore Paul is here referring not to sinless people but to Christians who really obey the Law--imperfectly--but really, and are on that basis vindicated by God at the last judgment as truly being His people. In fact, Paul says that they will judge Jews who were uncircumcised in heart and did not obey the Law in a consistently enduring or observable way, out of living faith.

5. Finally, I also just want to point out that in the very same book of Romans, Paul talks about the necessity of walking the path of sanctification if we would inherit eternal life. For example in chapter 6, verse 22, he talks about "...sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." Also, in chapter 8, he talks about how "...the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us" (v.4) and "if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (v.13).

So I think the final judgment will be carried out according to works not just for unbelievers, but for all the dead, great and small. "Books" will be opened, but also a "Book." The "books" contain deeds done by men. The "Book" contains names--those who belong to the Lamb and are washed in His blood, united to Him by faith and dressed in His righteousness. And there is what we should think of as accord between the "books" and the "Book." The accord between these is that all those written in the Lamb's Book of Life will have a record of their deeds that proves that at some point in their life, they were born again by the Spirit of God, definitively sanctified and set apart for holy purpose, and endured in imperfect but perseverant faith and repentance until the end. They will thereby be seen as manifestly united with Christ by faith, and credited with His righteousness, and as having had their sins atoned for by His blood.

Let's think about some implications for this passage.

1. As short as human judgment will fall in history--as short as civil justice will fall of an ideal standard for human society, there is coming a Day when a judgment will be executed by One who is infinitely wise, omniscient, omnipotent, and just; and His judgment will be swift, thorough, visible, and 100% perfectly just and equitable.

We ought to tremble at the thought of judgment according to works but as believers in Christ we ought also take comfort in the fact that God will infallibly right all wrongs in the universe. God will pour out wrathful recompense for every ounce of the trampling of His glory, for every instance of the murder and molestation of human beings by other human beings, for every theft, for every undue denigration of another's reputation, for every form of idolatry, and for every covetous lust burning in the hearts of men. This recompense will be poured out on the ungodly who persist in unrepentance, or it has been poured out on the innocent Jesus Christ on Calvary in the place of those who repent, turn to Him in faith, and continue in His love until the end.

2. Though we as Christians do not have our final assurance in introspection, nor do we have our good works as the ground or basis of our "right standing with God," which is instead by faith apart from works, we nevertheless ought to "take care how we walk." We ought to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" and seek to make faith "work through love," making our "calling and election sure." We ought to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" and multiply what we have been given by the Master to steward with wisdom lest He come back to find us empty-handed and unprofitable! We ought every day cling more to Christ and His promises in the gospel, and to kill more of the sin in our lives by the power of His Holy Spirit. We must persevere in faith, lest we find ourselves proven to be outside of Christ--never having truly been united to Him by living, vital faith--and without anything to show on the Last Day for the grace we have received. God's judgment accords with works.

3. Though the Bible teaches that we must demonstrate our faith's vitality through good works and obedience to the moral Law of God in order to pass muster at the last judgment, it also teaches that God--in an ultimate sense--requires perfect obedience if we would enter His presence. This we cannot do as sinners. And so we learn more about what Paul's gospel in 1:16-17 reveals about the "righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith." The gospel must address our need of an alien Law-keeping--a perfect obedience performed outside of us and for us.

Jesus Christ is His name. He was born under the Law, and obeyed it perfectly. He was crucified to atone for our sins. He was raised from the dead three days later, vindicated as the ultimate and perfect covenant-keeper and Law-obeyer, and as God's unique Son.

Whatever status you or I think we have as people who perhaps grew up in church or in a religious family, or have bloodlines linking us with past Christians or ancient Jews; or whatever degree of holiness you or I think we have attained above our neighbor who is "obviously much worse than us," let us know ourselves as needy sinners, let us know Christ as a necessary Savior--and in fact a more-than-sufficient Savior--and let us walk in Him as people who are, by grace, in the Light and not the darkness, and so prove ourselves as God's true people in His and the nations' sight at the Last Day when Christ comes again.

May God hasten the expansion of His kingdom on earth, and thereby hasten the Day of Christ. May He establish us, His people, in true holiness and righteousness. And may He, and no other, speak assurance to His people's hearts by His blessed Spirit.


Endnote: see R. C. H. Lenski's commentary on Romans for a similar translation of v. 7; see works of Moo, Dunn, Schreiner, Fitzmeyer, Byrne, and Irons for translating krith─ôsontai as "condemned." Also see The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament edited by J. D. Douglas to see other bases for literalistic word choices and order in the above translation.

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