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Bible Commentaries
Romans 2

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God’s eternal, intrinsic righteousness is the theme Paul was developing in the latter part of Romans 1 and in the first 16 verses of this chapter, that part in chapter 1 being concerned with God’s righteousness in dealing with Gentiles, and the first 16 verses here referring to another class of persons, the non-Christian Jews. God’s inclusion of Israel, along with the entire race of man, and his judgment of all of them, Jews and Gentiles alike, as sinners, Paul justified in the first 16 verses of this chapter, the Jews also being included in the universal condemnation, not exclusively upon the premise of their rejection of Christ, although that was enough, but also upon the basis of their negative and inadequate response to God’s revelation in the Old Testament.

The Jews had held, theoretically, to the teachings of the Old Testament, but had not obeyed it, and were just as excessively sinful as the Gentiles, and were here declared by Paul to have been guilty "of the same things" (Romans 2:1), a reference to the catalogue of 21 grievous sins of the reprobate Gentiles he had just recorded in Romans 2:28-29. The Jews had actually caused God’s name to be blasphemed (Romans 2:24); and yet, despite their abominable conduct, the Jews imagined that they would be exempted from God’s wrath, on the grounds of their being the children of Abraham, having the true revelation from God in the form of the Old Testament, and of holding to the covenant of circumcision. Obviously, no such exemption of Jewish sinners (or any others) could be reconciled with any concept of a just God; and, therefore, in these first 16 verses, Paul laid down a list of ten particulars, or principles, upon which God’s judgment of all people will be based.


I. People are self-condemned when they practice what they condemn in others (Romans 2:1).

II. God’s judgment will be according to the truth of the word of God, that is, his revealed word in the Bible (Romans 2:2).

III. God’s goodness to sinful people does not indicate approval of their sins but longsuffering in hope of their repentance (Romans 2:4).

IV. God’s judgment of man will be according to their works (Romans 2:6).

V. God requires obedience of man and will punish disobedience (Romans 2:8).

VI. Greater privilege only entails greater responsibility (Romans 2:9-10).

VII. God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11).

VIII. Judgment will be according to the light people have (Romans 2:14-15).

IX. Judgment will be according to the New Testament (Romans 2:16).

X. It will be through Jesus Christ, now constituted judge of all, and according to his word (Romans 2:16).

The error found in a number of commentaries which would interpret these 16 verses as a castigation of "self-righteous Christians" requires a little deeper exploration into the question of just who was addressed by Paul here. We cannot agree with Lenski who imagined that the subject of these verses (Romans 2:1-16) is "the self-convicted moralist,"(F1) because a careful reading of this passage shows that the people under consideration were not "moral" in any sense. There can be no reasonable doubt that the typical unbelieving Jew was the focus of Paul’s attention in this place. John Locke was certain that "By these words, Paul meant the Jews";(F2) and Murray logically defended that conviction thus:

(1) The propensity to judge the Gentiles for their religious and moral perversity was peculiarly characteristic of the Jew. Hence, the address, "O man, whosoever thou art that judgest" identifies the Jew by means of his national characteristic.

(2) The person being addressed is the participant of "the riches of his (God’s) goodness and forbearance and longsuffering," which would indicate the riches of special grace such as the Jew’s enjoyed in the covenant privilege.

(3) The argument of the apostle is to the effect that special privilege or advantage does not exempt from the judgment of God (Romans 2:3; Romans 2:6-11). The relevance to the Jew is apparent because this was an outstanding abuse of privilege on their part that, as the children of Abraham, they expected an indulgence not shared by others (Matthew 3:8-9; Luke 3:8; John 8:23; John 8:29; John 8:53; Galatians 2:15). Furthermore the priority accorded the Jew (in these very verses) in judgment (Romans 2:9) and in glory (Romans 2:10) indicates that the special privilege is that enjoyed by the Jew.

(4) The express address to the Jew (Romans 2:17) would be rather abrupt if now for the first time the Jew is directly in view, whereas if the Jew is the person in view in the preceding verses, then the more express identification in Romans 2:17 is natural.(F3)

This complete, logical, and conclusive argument of Murray has been included here to foil the eagerness of commentators to apply all of these first 16 verses to their favorite whipping boy, "the conceited Christian who thinks he belongs to the true church"! The bias of all such writers is implicit in the truth which cannot logically be denied, that no "Christians" of any description whatsoever were under Paul’s consideration in these verses.

Verse 1

Wherefore thou art without excuse, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest dost practice the same things.

Thou art without excuse … is the same condemnation Paul hurled at the Gentile (Romans 1:20), and here it is applied likewise to the Jew, "O man," as used in this passage, being more fully identified as bearing "the name of a Jew" (Romans 2:17), and as having the characteristic of judging other people.

Thou dost practice the same things … is a reference to the long list of abominations catalogued as the shame of the Gentiles in the last chapter (Romans 2:28-29); and those persons here addressed are condemned as guilty of "the same things." This is absolutely unreconcilable with such a view as Lenski’s:

They have reformed, they see all this horrible wickedness of men, they turn against it, do it seriously, the Jewish moralist even with God’s own perfect law, and they deem this the way of escape for themselves as well as for others.(F4)

Absolutely no! The people here mentioned were non-Christian Jews who had refused to accept the Saviour, had projected their hatred of Christianity into the second generation, and at that very moment were intent on hunting Paul down and killing him, and who were declared by this apostle a little later in this very chapter to have been profaners of sacred things (Romans 2:22), thieves (Romans 2:21), adulterers (Romans 2:22), impenitent and hardhearted (Romans 2:5). Paul was affirming here that God’s conclusion of Jews under sin was upon exactly the same basis of his having so included the Gentiles, that is, upon the basis of their wickedness. They certainly had not reformed and seriously turned away from wickedness.

The question of why, under the circumstances of their wickedness, Paul should have addressed any words at all to them is answered by the fact of the great influence those evil men were having upon Christians, especially those of Jewish background. No one besides Paul could have so appreciated the fact and power of that influence as did he; for he had been brought up a Pharisee, and was a noble Pharisee himself; and no person of that day could have better understood the Jewish syndrome than he. Paul was here concerned with destroying the hope of any person who ever thought or thinks that justification can ever come from anything except acceptance of and obedience to the gospel.

Wherein thou judgest another … It was the peculiar guilt of those persons here spoken of that, despite their wickedness, they imagined themselves to have been the heirs of eternal life because of descent from Abraham, membership in the chosen race, circumcision, etc. Having so long experienced God’s goodness and mercy, they had come to suppose themselves entitled to it, and assumed that they would be saved regardless of their conduct. Yet, strangely enough, their own sins did not prevent them from looking upon those identical actions, when visible in others, as reprehensible and damnable. To any person, especially those of Jewish heritage, in the first century, this false sanctuary of the Jewish people (false because: (1) they had not lived up to its holy requirements, and (2) because when Christ came, the old covenant itself had been abrogated) was indeed a temptation, for it advocated a cheap and easy salvation unrelated to any requirements of righteous living. The same temptation exists today when people think to be saved through membership in some group, or the acceptance of some theological doctrine, as for example, salvation by faith alone, or because they have been baptized, or because they attend church, or partake of the Lord’s supper — or upon any grounds whatever apart from obedient faith in Christ’s teaching and that holiness invariably identified with membership in the body of Christ.

Thou condemnest thyself … Here is the first of the ten principles of eternal judgment outlined by Paul in this passage. The well-known position of the adherent to Jewish privilege as the basis of hope was something like this: "Oh yes, of course, we deplore such sins as you mention; but you cannot put us in the class with that riff-raff, for we are the children of Abraham, heirs of the promises of God to the patriarchs, and members of the chosen people. God always looks after us; and we shall be judged upon the basis of who we are, rather than upon what we do!" If it be thought that this is too strong a statement of their views, the Jewish writings themselves fully corroborate the attitude thus attributed to them. For example, in the book of Akedath Jizehak (fol. 54, Colossians 2), it is taught that: "Abraham sits before the gate of hell, and does not allow that any circumcised Israelite should enter there."(F5) So strong was the feeling on circumcision that Paul devoted a special section to it a little later. A whole generation earlier, John the Baptist had warned the Jews against trusting in any such thoughts (Matthew 3:8), but his warning had not been taken to heart. Paul proceeded to refute this type of spiritual arrogance by outlining the true basis upon which God’s judgment rests; and the very first of ten principles laid down is:

I. People are self-condemned when they practice what they condemn in others.

This proposition, like all the others Paul outlined, is corroborated and backed up by the other sacred writers. Thus, "If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things" (1 John 3:20).

Before leaving this first verse, an explanation of Paul’s style should be noted. As Greathouse observed:

Paul is here addressing his readers in the ancient diatribe style. Throughout the epistle, it will be easier to follow his argument if we imagine the apostle face to face with a heckler who interrupts his argument from time to time with an objection, which Paul then proceeds to answer, first rebuking with a "God forbid!" (Perish the thought) and then demolishing with a reasoned answer.(F6)

Verse 2

And we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against them that practice such things.

In this verse, as in the preceding, it is the CONDUCT of people which is condemned, a fact reiterated throughout this section. Paul was not speaking of "moralists," either Jewish or Christian, but of bold and arrogant sinners. Paul’s "we know" was his method of stating an axiom of truth relative to God, namely, that God’s judgments are righteous, and according to truth itself; and therefore God’s judgments, especially his condemnation of gross sinners, derive from the abhorrent character of their deeds, and will not be averted by any claimed exemptions on their part.

According to truth … Here is the second proposition of ten principles in God’s judgment of man. It will be "according to truth," that is, according to what God’s word in the Bible teaches, for this is a plain reference to the Sacred Scriptures which will form the grounds of man’s eternal judgment in the last day. Such passages as "Thy word is truth" (John 17:17), etc., show this is true. Also, Christ said,

He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my sayings, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I spake, the same shall judge him in the last day (John 12:48).

Verse 3

And reckonest thou this, O man, who judgest them that practice such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?

Thus the second of the ten principles is:

I. People will be judged according to the Bible.

This verse makes it clear that Paul’s real subject in this paragraph is the judgment of God and the basis upon which same will be executed. Those persons who thought that God’s Judgment would ever be exercised upon partial and unequal judgments were fantastically wrong. Paul here exclaimed in utter astonishment at the foolishness of persons who fancied that they might escape the judgment of God when they were condemned even by their own consciences, a self-condemnation just mentioned in verse 1. If a man cannot escape his own judgment against himself, how could he ever hope to stand before the holy God? As Wuest expressed it:

The Jew certainly thought, in many cases, that the privilege of his birth would of itself assure his entrance into the kingdom (Matthew 3:8-9), this having been his practical conviction, whatever was his proper creed.(F7)

It was for the purpose of refuting such widespread errors regarding God’s judgment that Paul sternly propounded the true principles of it in these verses.

Verse 4

Or despised thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

Here is the third great principle of divine judgment:

I. God’s goodness to sinners is not a sign that he approves of sin but that he looks to their repentance.

The goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, called here "the riches" of God, have reference to the special privileges of the covenant people, the Jews, who again were answered by Paul in the form of a diatribe. The argument which was refused is: "God has been very good to us, and therefore we shall continue to expect goodness and favor at his hands." The argument is false because it is founded on a misunderstanding of the purpose of God’s goodness, which is not to show approval of people’s sins, but to extend to them further opportunities of repentance, and to persuade them by means of such goodness.

Despise … means "to look down upon," or "to place a low estimate upon" something of far greater value than is recognized by the despiser. This is exactly what was done by those people, who treated the goodness and longsuffering of God as if it had been a tacit approval of their wickedness, and made it the basis of presumption that they would not finally be condemned.

Of special interest is the revelation here that God’s goodness is designed to lead people to repentance, it being apparent that if God’s goodness cannot lead people to repentance, nothing else can. The response of the soul to all the mercies of heaven, the response of the human individual to all the joys, benefits, and privileges of life, as given to men by the heavenly Father that response is the God-implanted instinct of gratitude to the Creator, to the end that people should seek after God, draw near to him, and serve him with joy, and certainly not for the purpose of allowing people to feel presumptuously secure in their sins.

Thus, in this verse there is continued emphasis upon the master theme, of Romans, that of the righteousness of God, his righteous JUDGMENT being the particular aspect of it considered here. Note that this is also true of the next verse.

Verse 5

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.

The day of … Thus Paul followed the teaching of the Saviour who made repeated reference to "the day of judgment" (Matthew 7:22; Matthew 11:22-24, etc.).

Impenitent heart … shows the wrong response to God’s goodness, the purpose of which was to lead men to repent, but which had been perverted by some who had accepted it as tacit approval of THEIR wickedness, and with the result of hardness and impenitence in their hearts. How paradoxical that the very goodness of God which should have produced penitence, as intended, produced instead an arrogant, hard-hearted impenitent, who by such misuse of God’s goodness had treasured up for himself a terrible weight of wrath in the last day. The same paradox is evident in the influence of the gospel, as Paul said,

For we are a sweet savor of Christ unto God, in them that are saved, and in them that perish; to the one a savor from death unto death; and to the other a savor from life unto life (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).

Treasurest up … God will reward iniquity. As Hodge noted,

"To treasure up" is to lay up little by little, a store of anything whether good or evil The abusers of God’s goodness accumulate a store of wrath for themselves.(F8)

Verse 6

Who will render to every man according to his works.

Those who fancy that Paul’s special brand of salvation was by faith without any works at all find here an insurmountable denial that he taught any such thing. On the other hand, it is plainly stated in this passage of holy writ that one of the great principles of eternal judgment is,

I. God will judge people according to their works.

Moreover, Paul’s reason for so emphatically stating this principle in the beginning of Romans is apparent. Its inspired author was about to write the great dissertation which would stress salvation by faith in Christ, and was about to include many things in it that are capable of being misunderstood and abused; accordingly, he took caution here at the very outset to guard against those very misapplications of his words which he doubtless foresaw, and which misapplications have become in these present times the basic platform of a so-called "gospel" utterly unknown to Paul, at variance with practically the entire New Testament, and contradictory of Romans 2:6, above. We do not refer to the gospel of salvation by faith, or faith in Christ, or by grace, or by the grace of God, salvation in those terms being Pauline indeed; but reference is made to salvation by "faith alone," "faith only," or by "faith and nothing else." The great Protestant heresy founded upon the theory of an "imputed righteousness" solely as a result of faith alone contradicts Romans 2:6 in this place as well as countless other plain words of scripture.

Romans 2:6 makes it clear that on the judgment day every man will be rewarded according to his deeds. Only the good will be saved; and only the bad will be lost. This was the same doctrine Paul wrote the Corinthians:

For we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body, whether it be good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Also, if Paul’s teaching with reference to salvation by faith in Christ had been intended to negate the teaching of this verse, it is inconceivable that he would have thrust this statement into such prominence here. Out of regard to the ages-old conflict of religious views in this sector of thought, and in recognition of their importance, both practically and theoretically, some little space is here devoted to an exploration of this theme.


The New Testament declares definitely and positively that a man is justified by faith and that he is justified by works. That this is surely true appears from the following two verses, both of them from the New Testament, and here placed side by side for comparison:

Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith (James 2:24).

In the light of the above two verses, it is just as true that a man is saved by works ALONE as that he is saved by faith ALONE; but, of course, the word of God says neither thing. Therefore, any proposition to the effect that man is saved, or justified, by work ALONE, or by faith ALONE, contradicts a plain statement of the word of God. Whatever the correct view may be, it must, of necessity, be one that does not contradict any statement of the scriptures; and from the two verses cited, it is revealed as a certainty that the justification of sinners in Gods sight is contingent upon BOTH faith and works. Significantly, Paul brought both faith and works together in a single text addressed to the Galatians:

For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).

First, attention is directed to a class of New Testament statements which, upon first glance, appear to contradict James’ statement (James 2:24) that men are justified by works; but it must continually be borne in mind that James did not say people are justified by works ALONE. These are statements to the effect that man’s salvation is "not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9), "not by works of righteousness which we did ourselves" (Titus 3:5), and "therefore, by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Romans 3:20). In all such references to works which are alleged to have no part in justification, different classes, or kinds, of works are in view. Therefore, to determine what kind of work entered into the justification mentioned by James, it is necessary to classify works in the same manner that they were classified by the sacred writers.

Seven classes of works are distinguished in the New Testament: (1) Works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21), the same being principally the indulgence of lusts, passions, etc. (2) The works of Satan, specifically, lying and murder (John 8:44), all sins being in one sense works of Satan, but these being specifically so-called by Christ himself. (3) The works of men, including all human achievements from building of the Great Wall of China to walking on the moon. The works of the law of Moses (Romans 3:20). (5) The works of moral goodness. The moralist follows a path of behavior parallel in many places to the Christian life; but between the two ways there is a river wide and deep, the river of the blood of Christ. Both Cornelius and the rich young ruler are New Testament examples of morally upright persons who were unsaved. (6) The works of human righteousness (Romans 10:3) are those religious activities of people which derive their authority from people alone and not from God, being the ceremonies and doctrines people themselves devised and having not the Creator as their author. Such are the traditions, precepts, and commandments of men denounced by Christ himself (Matthew 15:9). (7) A seventh New Testament classification of works is called the "work of faith" (1 Thessalonians 1:3). This work is clearly in a class by itself and may be defined as any action whatever undertaken or discharged by man in OBEDIENCE to a divine commandment. Here is the key to untangling the most persistent theological problem from the days of Martin Luther and the Reformers until the present.

The doctrine of justification by faith ALONE was first advocated by Martin Luther; but he ran into what seemed an impossible contradiction of his theory in James 2:24, which was said to have raised some question in Luther’s mind for a while regarding the canonicity of James. Modern reverberations of the supposed conflict between Paul and James (though actually between Luther and James) have continued to echo through succeeding generations, the wide-spread heresy that salvation "through faith" releases people from the necessity of obeying the Lord’s commandments, especially the commands requiring baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc.

And how is the problem resolved? Quite simply. Where Paul stated that people are not justified by works, let it be determined which works he meant; and where James wrote that a man is justified by works, let it be determined what kind of works he meant. It is perfectly easy to discover both. Paul, in his repeated affirmations that men are not saved by works, never had reference to the work of faith (No. 7, above); and James never had in mind anything except the work of faith. Thus Paul’s teaching was directed against any notion that keeping the works of the law of Moses could save, or any personal morality apart from Christianity could justify. Another type of works which Paul categorically rejected as being the basis of salvation was called the work of human righteousness, and referred to religious practices of mere human authority (No. 6, above). A little diligence on the part of any student will show what a vital distinction this is. James gave examples of how certain persons were justified by works; and in every case, the "work" was an obedient act to a divine command, as when Abraham offered Isaac, etc. That Paul also accepted the principle stated by James that justification is due to such actions of obedient faith is clear from Romans 2:6 in this chapter and from Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26. In fact, Romans 2:6 here is absolutely equivalent to saying that man is justified by works, not the other kinds, but the works of faith. Romans 2:6 harmonizes absolutely with James 2:24. Therefore, Paul’s frequent words, to the effect that people are not saved by works, never have reference to the "work of faith" which he himself announced as one of the glories of the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 1:3). If he had meant any such thing, he never could have written Romans 2:6.

When James spoke of justification by works, he did not refer to any of the works set at naught by Paul, When James stated that Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar, that inspired author made it impossible to misunderstand the kind of works that justified Abraham. What kind of work was the offering of Isaac? It was an act of obedience to God’s command; had it not been that, it would have been murder, hence a work of the devil; and that is exactly the difference that turns upon the question of who commanded a given action. Specifically, this principle applies to every humanly derived innovation in worship and to all human religious ordinances without divine authority. But for the Christian, the kind of works by which he is justified are, as in Abraham’s case, the doing of what God has commanded. Such things as repentance, baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc., are thus not acts of human righteousness, nor works of human beings in any sense whatever, but are the work of faith.

Thus there can be no excuse for minimizing the great imperatives of the gospel of Christ on the basis that people are saved by faith, for they are also saved by the work of faith and will be thus judged eternally (Romans 2:6). People are saved by faith when they believe and obey the gospel.

Titus 3:5 has this:

Not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.

This passage is frequently cited in support of the view that such acts of obedience as baptism are not necessary, but the specific reference to baptism in the last clauses of that verse proves that the ordinance of baptism, even when submitted to by believers, is not to be considered a work of human righteousness in any sense. It is, on the contrary, a work of faith, having been commanded and required of all people by none other than Christ himself. "Works done in righteousness" is a reference to religious actions outside of God’s commands, that is, to works other than those of faith. To set aside one of Jesus’ own commands on the basis that such is a work of human righteousness is to ignore distinctions made by the holy apostles themselves.

Therefore, it is not out of harmony with the true teachings of scripture to declare that people are saved by faith and that they are also saved by works, or the work of faith. Note the following passages of the word of God:

If thou wouldest enter into life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:17).

Men and brethren, what shall we do? … Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to work (Philippians 2:12).

Repent and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly and remove thy candlestick out of its place (Revelation 2:6).

Faith without works is dead, being alone (James 2:17).

Then may people trust God, believing in Christ with all their hearts, and obey the gospel. Even when they have done that, and everything else within their power to do, people do not become their own saviour; although, in a sense, those who obey are scripturally said to "save themselves" (Acts 2:40). No amount of righteous living, or of good works, can place God in the position of owing salvation to any person. Salvation is the free gift of Almighty God; but it is also conditional, there being revealed in the New Testament pre-conditions which must be fulfilled by people in order to comply with the terms upon which the free salvation is given. Faith is such a pre-condition; and the obedience of faith is another. Reference to these distinctions will be made throughout this commentary.

Verses 7-8

To them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life: but unto them that are factions, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation.

Here is another unequivocal declaration of a master principle underlying God’s judgment, the fifth in this passage:

I. God will reward well-doing and punish disobedience.

These verses connect closely with Romans 2:6 and show the manner of God’s judging people according to their works. Together, these verses declare dogmatically that well-doers shall inherit eternal life and that the disobedient shall receive wrath and tribulation. Whiteside saw a definition of eternal life in Romans 2:7.

So far as this text shows, eternal life consists of glory, honor, and incorruption — a happy existence in the heavenly kingdom. … Eternal life is conditional, for eternal life must be sought by patience and well-doing. In the 8th and 9th verses, Paul affirms that tribulation and anguish will be visited upon those who do evil. If damnation is conditional, then salvation also must be conditional. One cannot be conditional and the other unconditional, if doing wrong causes a person to be lost, then to be saved, he must leave off the wrong and do right. If being lost is conditional, so is being saved.(F9)

"Doing" and "obeying" are made to be the basis of being saved, and "obeying not" is established as the basis of being lost; and such was no new concept with the apostle Paul. It invariably entered into all his letters. For example, he wrote the Thessalonians:

Rest with us at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus, who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).

It should be noticed in the above reference that Paul did not set up a special category for "disobedient believers," who through faith and nothing but faith would be saved anyway! Nor yet was there provision made for another class of disobedient who had had God’s forensic righteousness transferred to them through faith only.

Verses 9-10

Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

"To him that worketh not," which Paul was to write in Romans 4:5, must be understood in conjunction with these verses where "worketh evil" and "worketh good" dogmatically are affirmed to be the basis of being saved or being lost. They cover exactly the same ground, but in the reverse order. In the previous two verses, the patient seekers of eternal life are contrasted with them that obey unrighteousness; and in these two verses, the soul that worketh evil is mentioned first and contrasted with him that worketh good. It is as though Paul had written: "Take it either going or coming, the judgment will be based upon what people do, whether or not they obey the Lord." But more appears here in the repeated mention of "the Jew first." This established the sixth principle of judgment, thus:

I. Greater privilege will only entail greater, responsibility.

Far from having any kind of exemption, the Jew, due to his greater blessings, will actually receive priority in judgment, making either their damnation more severe, or their redemption more glorious than that of others. The same principle was enunciated by the apostle Peter thus:

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel? And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear? (1 Peter 4:17).

Verse 11

For there is no respect of persons with God.

This, of course, is the seventh principle of judgment:

I. There is no respect of persons with God.

This crystal-clear statement of God’s impartiality hardly needs an interpretation. It simply means that God will judge people on the basis outlined in these verses, upon the basis of their deeds, whether good or bad, and not upon the basis of any fancied exemptions. The Jew will not be able to claim exemption on the basis of his descent from Abraham; and the Christian will be unable to claim exemption because he was a member of "good old Mother Church"! As in all the scriptures, the writings of the apostles complement each other and corroborate the doctrines taught. Thus, Peter’s comment on this same principle is just what one should have expected. He wrote:

Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35).

Respect of persons … according to Thayer, means:

Partiality, the fault of one who is called on to requite or to give judgment, has respect to the outward circumstances of men, and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers as the more worthy, one who is rich, high born, or powerful, to another who is destitute of such gifts.(F10)

How reassuring it is to know that God will give just judgment, not after the prejudices of people, but according to truth and righteousness; and, although there is ground here for great assurance, there is likewise the basis of dreadful apprehension, when the essential unworthiness of all flesh in God’s sight is contemplated.

Verses 12-13

For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

In these verses, Paul began to deal with a dramatic difference between Jews and Gentiles. In the preceding verses, he had shown that God was no respector of persons, and that he would judge Jew and Gentile alike upon the basis of their deeds, whether good or bad; but until these verses Paul had taken no account of the fact that the Jews had been the custodians of God’s divine revelation called "the law," here and throughout Romans. The Gentiles had possessed no such advantage; and Paul, to continue his great argument relative to God’s intrinsic righteousness, was here concerned with showing how, under those diverse circumstances, God’s judgments would still be fair and impartial. The two great facts with regard to the Gentiles were: (1) that they had sinned, and (2) they had not received the law of Moses. For good and righteous reasons, already set forth in chapter 1, the Gentiles perished anyway because of their dreadful rebellion against God. The Jews, on the other hand, did have God’s law; but they never kept it. However, they were still to be judged upon the basis of the law they never kept, the mere fact of their having had it being in no sense a guarantee of a favorable judgment; "For not the hearers of the law, ,but the doers of the law shall be justified."

Not the hearers … is of interest and contrasts with "readers of the law," which might have been expected; but Paul’s terminology was correct because most of the Jews, every sabbath day in the synagogues, heard the scriptures read, very few, if any of them, having copies of God’s word in their homes. Again, the words of an apostle confirm Paul’s declaration (rather they confirm each other), thus:

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But he that looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth, but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing (James 1:22-25).

That the actual doing of God’s law, whether the Old Testament law as it concerned the Jews or the perfect law of liberty as it concerns Christians (for James was talking about the latter), is required of those who would be saved is thus taught both by Paul and by James; and significantly, the very first reference to justification in the whole Roman letter is right here!

There is no intimation in these words that any true justification, in the absolute sense, was ever achieved by any under the law of Moses; but, inasmuch as there were countless persons under that system who were saved, a justification sufficient to that Paul’s meaning is therefore to the effect that whoever was saved under the law of Moses was of the class called "doers" of God’s commandments, rather than mere hearers.

Verses 14-15

(For when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them).

These verses reveal the eighth principle of divine judgment, namely,

I. That God’s righteous judgment will take into account the light people had or did not have.

Paul never implied in these verses that the ancient Gentiles were all saved, because they had lived up to all the light they had; for he repeatedly made it clear that they did not do that. This parenthesis, therefore, would best be viewed, it seems, as setting forth the basis of judgment. Those who believe that they find some basis for what is called Paul’s universalism in this passage must go beyond what is written in order to do so.

Paul’s intimation that Gentiles might do by nature the things of the law shows that the eternally righteous God will certainly take into account all of the good conduct of any Gentiles whose lives might warrant doing so, even though they were not under a specific law like the Jews; but the practical verdict had already been stated in verse 12, "that as many as sinned without law shall also perish without law." From this, and the whole tenor of Paul’s letter, it is clear that Paul’s great proposition is that both Jews and Gentiles have failed to achieve any true righteousness, or to be justified in any adequate sense. This was due to the failure of the Jews, who, having the law, treated it as a charm or a talisman rather than honoring it by their obedience; and it was also due to the failure of the Gentiles who were not any more proficient in living up to the light they had than were the Jews. Thus, these two verses are an apostolic enunciation of the great truth that God will judge every man according to the light he has, and not according to the light he has not. If there were, in antiquity, any Gentiles who truly lived up to the light they had, one may rest assured that God will reward them. In speaking of these things, so utterly beyond the unaided knowledge of man, it should always be assumed as an axiom that "God is too wise to make a mistake and too good to do anything wrong."

Verse 16

In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.

This concluding statement of the paragraph shows that the theme of the general judgment on the last day was under discussion; and two more propositions relative to that final scene are added here, as follows:

I. The final judgment will be according to the New Testament.

II. The judgment will be by Christ as Judge.

According to my gospel … Since Paul was the principal author of the New Testament, the extended meaning of the world’s being judged by Paul’s gospel is that it will be judged by the New Testament, there being no disunity whatever between Peter’s Gospel, Paul’s Gospel, and Matthew’s Gospel, etc. It is the entire New Testament that shall confront people in judgment. Jesus Christ declared of his word, that the same should judge men in the last day (John 12:48); and there is no other authentic source than the New Testament for either the words of the Master or the gospel of Paul.

By Jesus Christ … The fact of the judgment’s being "by Jesus Christ" is comprehensive: (1) Christ is to be the judge (John 5:22). (2) Christ’s word is the basis of judgment (John 12:48). (3) The word of the apostles is also part of the platform of eternal judgment (2 Peter 3:2). (4) All authority in heaven and upon earth belongs to Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

My gospel … does not imply any difference between Paul and other New Testament authors. It is simply a term of endearment, such as "my God" (Romans 1:8). Paul’s use of this expression in the context could also be his way of emphasizing the truth that the doctrine of eternal judgment was indeed a valid and prominent element in his teaching. As Murray suggested,

And when Paul says, "my gospel," he is reminding his readers that the gospel committed to him, unto which he is separated (Romans 1:1), and with which he was identified, though it was truly the gospel of grace, was also one that incorporated the proclamation of judgment for all, just and unjust. Grace does not dispense with judgment. Only in the gospel does this proclamation come to full fruition.(F11)

Thus, right down to the very last word of this section (Romans 2:1-16), the final judgment of all mankind is the theme, with special emphasis on the principles upon which that judgment will be executed.

The secrets of men … include the inner thoughts, hidden motives, all actions concealed or hidden from others. In fact, the judgment will be of the whole man, as only God sees, knows, and understands him.

By way of summarizing thoughts on these 16 verses (Romans 2:1-16), two things should be kept in mind: (1) that the subject treated in this section is that of the final judgment, handled in such a manner by the apostle as to vindicate the righteousness of the just Judge who shall conduct it, and to reveal the basic principles of God’s law that will form the basis of it; and (2) that the persons to whom this passage was particularly addressed were the antagonistic Jews, who, unlike the noble Jews who formed the very first nucleus of Christians (including Paul), were in a state of utmost wickedness and rebellion against God, despite which they still imagined that they would inherit salvation because of the privileges of Judaism. As Murray expressed it,

We cannot overlook the fact that in this passage as a whole the apostle is concerned with the unbelieving Jew.(F12)

Therefore, when it is reflected upon that these entire 16 verses are taken up completely by a discussion of judgment to come and directed to the enlightenment of an exceedingly wicked class of citizens who were in a state of totally rejecting Christ and denying the gospel, any allegation that this section pertains to self-righteousness and Phariseeism among Christians must be denied; although, to be sure, the principles Paul taught here are applicable to the entirety of mankind.

Romans 2:17-19, following, constitute a section where Paul pointedly applied the principles just enunciated to those persons he had in mind. They were Jews, that is, certain wicked Jews, and not necessarily all Jews, Paul himself being a noble and righteous Jew. The class confronted with these words were those who felt that their knowledge of the law of Moses, the fact of their having been circumcised, their descent from Abraham, and other high privileges which they enjoyed — that all these things would entitle them to be judged upon some other basis than a mere question of whether they were wicked or holy. It seems nearly incredible that any rational being with the most elementary knowledge of God could possibly be so self-deceived; and yet, from what is written here, it must be received as fact that the people Paul had in view were certainly so deceived. In this section, there is first an enumeration of the prerogatives upon which certain Jews based their false hopes (Romans 2:17-20); then comes a withering charge of hypocrisy (Romans 2:21-24); and next follows a particular discussion of circumcision, the truth regarding that rite being so presented that not even that honored ceremony could any longer be claimed as efficacious by those whose lives did not measure up to the covenant of which that rite was only a sign (Romans 2:25-29).

Verses 17-20

But if thou bearest the name of the Jew, and restest upon the law, and gloriest in God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, a corrector oy the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth.

"But if you call yourself a Jew" (RSV) would indicate that Paul did not consider the persons here addressed as worthy of so honorable and worthy a name as that of "Jew." He made the same distinction at the end of this chapter where he denied them any right to be so called. It is as though Paul had said, "I do not associate myself with you in your usurpation of this honored name."

The name "Jew" first occurs in 2 Kings 16:6; but after the Babylonian exile, it was used frequently. It is thought to be derived from "Judah," the name of the principal tribe of Israel, especially of the southern kingdom, after the division. It was an honored and sacred name. Murray said,

It was a name associated in the mind of the Jew with all upon which he prided himself.(F13)

"Judah" means "praised," being the name given by Leah to her fourth son, because, as she said, "Now will I praise the Lord" (Genesis 29:35). The same meaning of "praise" is therefore attached to the name Jew. The name had the highest status among the Hebrews. Even upon his death-bed, Jacob said, "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise" (Genesis 49:8), which is an evident reference to the glorious name of the fourth son, which came, in time, to be adopted by all the Hebrews in the abbreviated form. This is an appropriate place to note that the noblest of those who wore that name deserved it in every sense of the word. Antiquity reveals no more noble persons than those great Jews whose names adorn the pages of the Old Testament. All of the patriarchs and prophets, some of the kings, and many God-fearing members of this chosen nation must be reckoned among the noblest ever to live on earth and surely met Paul’s specifications for persons worthy to be called Jews (Romans 2:28-29). To be sure, none of those ancient worthies was perfect; but their lives as a whole established new bench-marks of character in an age when virtue itself had been almost banished from the earth. Thus, it is clear that Paul thought that some who called themselves Jews were utterly unworthy to wear the name.

And restest upon the law … Here Paul began to list the prerogatives that surely pertained to the honorable but were falsely claimed by those whom Paul addressed. They rested in the law, not by keeping its teachings but by glorying in it as a national possession ministering to their pride and conceit, and as having nothing at all to do with their behavior.

And gloriest in God … Paul did not mean that any of the things in this list were wrong in themselves, but that they were, like a jewel in a swine’s snout, wrong by circumstance, that circumstance being the wickedness of those glorying in God, etc. Of course, they were not actually glorying in God in the sense that it was lawful and commendable to do so. True glorying in God is right and proper, as the scriptures teach:

He that glorieth let him glory in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31).

Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercises lovingkindness, judgment, righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23-24 KJV).

What kind of glorying was it then which Paul enumerated here as reprehensible? It was a vain and empty glorying of wicked men which nourished their conceit that they were something special in God’s sight, and in which they attributed to God an attitude of indifference, or even approval of their sins.

And knowest his will … Just as above, knowing God’s will is very well indeed; and it is the solemn duty of every man ever born to know God’s will as perfectly as possible; but it is a mark of honor to know God’s will, only if the knowledge is accompanied by a sincere intention to do it. On the other hand, when mere knowledge is made to support human conceit and causes the possessor to fancy that such knowledge endows him with some kind of superiority over his fellow man, or when it may be supposed that the mere possession of the knowledge of God, apart from the true obedience to God’s will, conveys any eternal merit — then occurs the condition reproved here.

Approvest the things that are excellent … A glance at the English Revised Version (1885) margin shows an alternate translation of this clause as "dost distinguish the things that differ"; and Murray stated that it was impossible to decide exactly what Paul means.(F14) A probable meaning of both clauses taken together might be expressed thus: "You have the ability to make accurate moral judgments and to distinguish and appreciate moral values." That ability was derived from God’s law in which those people had been instructed. Every Jew, through parental training and weekly attendance of the sabbath worship, was instructed in the law, at least to the extent of hearing it repeatedly read, and of hearing the public discussion of it.

And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind … These men were precisely the same kind of persons of whom Jesus said,

They are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into a pit (Matthew 15:14).

There was a certain superficial sense in which those people might indeed have led the blind and served as the light of the world; but the moral cancer within them negated such an ability completely. Moreover, their minds had already been darkened in the manner Paul described in Romans 1:21; and the mere fact of their clinging to the external and superficial glories of the old covenant and conceitedly glorying in it could not take away their essential blindness in spiritual things.

A corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes …

Here Paul completed the list of Jewish prerogatives begun in Romans 2:17. The things listed here are synonymous with some already mentioned. Collectively, the expressions listed provide an excellent picture of the way Gentiles were regarded by the enlightened Jews of Paul’s day. Tragically, the picture is accurate. The Gentiles were indeed blind, ignorant, babes, walking in darkness, an extremely foolish people who desperately needed the wisdom and guidance which properly instructed Jews might have given them. These covenant people detested the ridiculous idolatry of the Gentiles and were in full possession of the most wonderful revelation that ever came from God until Christ appeared upon Calvary.

Having in the law the form of knowledge … identifies the source of all Jewish knowledge and superiority as the law of Moses. The words strongly suggest Paul’s words to Timothy,

For men shall be lovers of self, etc. … holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof: from these also turn away (2 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 3:5).

Greathouse thought that Paul’s use of "form" is the same in both references;(F15) but Murray wrote,

"Form" in this instance does not have the same meaning as in Timothy. There is no suggestion of semblance or unreality. In the law the Jew had in his possession the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth in well-defined and articulated form.(F16)

Nevertheless, a comparison of Paul’s words in the two places leaves a strong impression that Greathouse was right. Certainly, as Murray said, the law was absolutely genuine; but when the power of that law had been negated by the sinful rebellion of them that knew it, it was only a mere shadow of the real thing that they had left. Jesus said of the temple itself, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Matthew 23:38). The same principle holds with regard to the gospel itself, wherein is mighty power to save; but when sin corrodes the life of Christians, they are invariably left holding to a mere form, a feeble shadow of reality.

Verses 21-24

Thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou rob temples? thou who gloriest in the law, through thy transgression of the law, dishonorest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, even as it is written.

This devastating blast is a charge of hypocrisy, immorality, dishonesty and general wickedness leveled against the persons Paul addressed. The interrogative form of the charges is idiomatic and does not raise the slightest uncertainty concerning their sins, and should be understood as the bluntest and most dogmatic affirmation of their unmitigated guilt. Paul evidently selected the very sins which were most odious to the Jews, at least in theory; for, of all the sins of the pagans around them, the Jews particularly detested their idol worship and the abominable sexual excesses. Theft and blasphemy were also regarded similarly. Therefore, it is amazing that Paul charged them with guilt in all these areas. Although there were doubtless many personal exceptions to the gross wickedness Paul charged against the Jews, the tragedy lies in the fact of its being so generally true of that particular generation. Christ himself supported Paul’s charge of theft thus:

And he saith unto them, It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer: but ye make it a den of robbers (Matthew 21:13).

The persons charged in Jesus’ indictment were none other than the social, religious, and political leaders of the nation. Paul’s charge of adultery was supported by all the Old Testament prophets, especially Jeremiah, who wrote,

(They) assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses. They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbor’s wife (Jeremiah 5:7-8).

Jeremiah even went so far as to say that the Israelites had committed adultery "under every green tree" (Jeremiah 2:20). The charge of robbing temples is more difficult to understand because, grammatically, it does not seem to fit in. For that reason commentators take it in a secondary sense, like "profaning sacred things" or robbing God through non-payment of tithes (as in Malachi 3:8-10); but there is no need of any attempt to soften this. Those addressed were guilty as charged. True, we are unable to cite specific examples, as of adultery and theft; but, what is more important, their reputation for doing just that is established in the word of God. Again, from Murray,

Since the town clerk at Ephesus defends Paul and his colleagues against any such charge as robbing temples (Acts 19:37), we cannot suppose this wrong was one to which the Jews were entirely immune!(F17)

How strangely perverse is the human heart, which, in the midst of abounding depravity and sin, and while participating in and sharing in the very sins known to be prohibited and abominable, the heart is yet capable of indulging in delusions of spiritual safety and security; and never in history were there any more pitiful examples of such a phenomenon than those persons Paul addressed in these verses.

Thou who gloriest in the law … This and the following clause constitute a summary of what Paul wrote in Romans 2:17-20, and the second clause of Romans 2:23, whether understood as affirmative or interrogatory, is a pronouncement of guilt upon those people in all points as charged, namely, theft, profanation, adultery, etc.

For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you … is the pinnacle of Paul’s indictment, the same being a paraphrase of Isaiah 52:5, last clause, which reads, "And my name continually every day is blasphemed." It is worth noting that the blaspheming of God’s name mentioned by Isaiah was due to the captivity of Israel, it being the view of the pagans that any god who could not protect his people from captivity could be blasphemed with impunity; but this circumstance does not invalidate Paul’s appeal to this verse for support of what he said, because the captivity itself was due to the sins of Israel, thus making their sin to be the originating cause of the blasphemy.

Verse 25

For circumcision indeed profiteth, if thou be a doer of the law: but if thou be a transgressor of the law, thy circumcision is become uncircumcision.

Beginning here, and to the end of the chapter, Paul discussed circumcision, which was to the Jew, and especially to them here addressed, a refuge of last resort, wherein, if all else failed, he still might claim eternal life as his just inheritance. Charles Hodge noted that:

It is obvious that the Jews regarded circumcision as in some way securing their salvation. That they did so regard it may be proved, not only from such passages of the New Testament where the sentiment is implied, but also by the direct assertion of their own writers. Such assertions have been gathered in abundance from their own works by Eisenmenger, Shoettgen, and others. For example, Rabbi Menachem, in his commentary on the Book of Moses (folio 43, column 3), says, "Our Rabbis have said, that no circumcised man will see hell." Charles Hodge, op. cit., p. 64.

Circumcision, as Paul discussed it here, refers to the rite itself, not to the whole law of which that rite was a covenant seal. The fact that Paul began with a declaration that circumcision was profitable for them that kept the law was apparently in anticipation of the advantages pertaining to the Jew which he discussed immediately afterwards in Romans 3. But, while allowing the validity of the rite when used as God intended it, Paul did not hesitate to blast this last refuge of apostates by showing that not even circumcision could do a man any good eternally, if he did not keep the law. To transgressors of the law (not occasional and inadvertent transgressors, but the hardened and impenitent) circumcision became uncircumcision. Every Israelite should have known that already. Historically, circumcision had never been alleged as any reason why the death penalty should not have been executed upon sabbath breakers (Numbers 15:35) and such men as Achan (Joshua 7:24), nor as any impediment to their Rabbi’s casting out of their synagogues persons they judged unworthy. From these well-known facts, they should have been able to deduce the great corollary that no such thing as circumcision could possibly prevent the judgment of God upon apostates.

Verse 26

If therefore the uncircumcision keep the ordinance of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision?

In Romans 2:18, the alternative translation of a key clause was noted: "distinguish the things that differ"; and the crying need to do just that becomes apparent in the study of a verse like this. All kinds of false teachings are advocated as a result of Paul’s statement here. For example, Hodge wrote in his comment on this place,

If circumcision is in itself nothing, its presence cannot protect the guilty; its absence cannot invalidate the claims of the righteous.(F18)

In Hodge’s statement there is a failure to distinguish things that differ. If he had said, "Its absence in those persons of whom God has not required it cannot invalidate the claims of the righteous," then his: statement would have been true. To take Hodge’s statement as it stands, it would have to mean that a "righteous Jew" who had refused to obey God’s commandment regarding circumcision would not thus have invalidated his righteousness. The tremendous importance of this distinction will be seen a little later as applied to the subject of baptism. Obviously, Paul taught nothing like that.

The above raises the question at once of who were those uncircumcised people keeping the ordinances of the law; and which law and which ordinances are meant? Without any doubt, Godet’s identification of those uncircumcised keepers of the law is correct. He said,

We are to regard the apostle as referring to those many Gentiles converted to the gospel who, all uncircumcised as they were, nevertheless fulfilled the law in virtue of the Spirit of Christ, and thus became the true Israel, the Israel of God (Galatians 4:16).(F19)

Here then is the instance where uncircumcision had become circumcision, and here is the case where uncircumcision could not invalidate the claims of the righteous; Hodge’s statement noted above does not take into account this distinction and is not correct. Many of the Christians of Jewish descent in the early church insisted upon circumcision for Gentile converts, a requirement Paul fought vigorously and never allowed; and it is the shadow of that old controversy that looms here. The law required circumcision; and, therefore, any person credited with "keeping the ordinances of the law" would positively have to be a person of whom God had never required circumcision in the first place, and who was fulfilling the law, not in the shadow of its old ordinances, but in the realities of the new life in Christ. Every Christian, though literally uncircumcised, is nevertheless circumcised "in Christ;" in the same sense that he has paid the penalty of death due to sin, "in Christ." All who are truly "in Christ" thus fulfill the law.

Verse 27

And shall not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who with the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the law?

The words "by nature" in this verse are made the basis of referring this statement to pagans, or Gentiles, of the nobler variety, who were presumably living up to all the light they had; and, in that vein of thought, Hodge declared:

The idea is that the obedient uncircumcised heathen would be better off; he would stand on higher ground than the disobedient circumcised Jew.(F20)

While Hodge’s paraphrase might in itself be true, in a sense, it is the conviction here that the words "if it fulfill the law" absolutely preclude Paul’s having had any such thing in mind. The only way that the law can possibly be fulfilled is "in Christ," and that mountain fact solidly identifies the "uncircumcision which is by nature" as those Gentiles who had become Christians, the expression "which is by nature" being but another way of saying they had been Gentiles. Any notion that unregenerated Gentiles had indeed "fulfilled the law" dissolves in light of Paul’s extensive argument in Romans 1:18-21, where Hodge’s noble unregenerated Gentile is simply not visible!

However that may be, that author, in the very next sentence makes one of those deductions from this verse which no Christian should allow. He said,

It is only putting the truth taught in this verse into different words to say "the unbaptized believer shall condemn the baptized unbeliever."(F21)

The fallacy in this corrupt deduction is startlingly clear, for it is resident in the fact that God never required of any Gentile that he should be circumcised. Therefore the uncircumcised Gentile was not violating any ordinance of God by remaining so; but this is nowise the case with so-called "unbaptized believers." Consider the monstrosity of the "unbaptized believer," who in truth does exist necessarily for that small time between the coming of faith in his heart and his actual submission to God’s ordinance of baptism, but who is not the "unbaptized believer" spoken of by the commentators. All no, he is presented with full status as a believer with no intention of being baptized; and what of him? He is a contradiction of terms, because no believer can remain a believer in the true sense while willfully continuing in an unbaptized state. May God open men’s eyes to see the truth. Charles Hodge was selected out of many exponents of this false teaching imported into these verses, because of the clarity of his views and obvious sincerity of his arguments.

Judge thee … refers to the same thing Jesus mentioned when he declared that the people of Nineveh should rise in judgment and condemn that (the Lord’s) generation (Matthew 12:41).

Verses 28-29

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and the circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not is the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

In these two verses, the principle is stated both negatively (Romans 2:28) and positively (Romans 2:29) that the rite of circumcision is useless unless the moral values of the law, which were pledged and symbolized by that circumcision, are also maintained. The false circumcision would therefore be the circumcision of one whose life showed no regard for the moral values of God’s law; and the true circumcision would be the case of the circumcised person who regarded and honored such values. To make Paul’s statement in this context mean that every external rite, such as baptism, which was commanded by the Lord himself, may be dispensed with, and that some vague inward experience or strong emotional commitment may be substituted for it, is to make it speak a falsehood. There is not a particle of evidence that Paul here had in mind Christian baptism, or that these words may be forced into an application to that rite. Paul was only declaring that the only circumcision that could avail the Jew anything was a circumcision honored by a life consistent with the rite.

In the spirit not in the letter … does not mean that the external rite of circumcision, as commanded by the law, might have been dispensed with by the Jew and replaced by some "spiritual" experience, but simply that the external rite ALONE, without the God-honoring life that was supposed to accompany it, was worthless. The question before Paul in these verses is not a Christian question, but a Jewish one, and to get this all mixed up with baptism, as so: many of the commentators have done, is an error. These words, "in the spirit not in the letter" do not mean that the external rite of circumcision was not necessary under the law, any more than Peter’s "not the putting away of the filth of the flesh" (1 Peter 3:21) means that the outward ceremony of baptism was to be omitted, but only that there was an inward meaning designed to accompany the outward act. The legitimate deduction is that: just as there was an absolute necessity under the law of Moses to combine the external rite of circumcision with a holy life, so there is for the Christian the absolute necessity of combining with the external ordinance of baptism that newness of life which there begins.

These verses refer back to Paul’s introduction of this paragraph in Romans 2:17, where he said, in effect, "You call yourself a Jew"; and it is plain, from the definition Paul gave of who may qualify to wear such an honored name, that he did not consider the reprobate type of Jew under discussion in this chapter as any fit subject to wear it. True, the word "Jew" means praise; but Paul pointed out forcefully enough that "praise of God," not "praise of men," was meant.

Lenski, Hodge, and many others have built theological castles upon the five verses which conclude this chapter, expressed in many pages of eloquent denunciations of "moralists" who trust in outward rites instead of genuine faith in the Lord, no less than fifteen pages, for example, in Lenski being devoted to these five verses: But to borrow a word from Shakespeare, "Methinks thou dost protest too much!" It has already been noted that Christians, and things pertinent to their redemption, are not even under discussion in these verses, where Paul was dealing with the presumption of reprobate Jews whose reliance upon such an external rite as circumcision was both naive and unrealistic. What Paul said here, therefore, in order to take away that delusion from their hearts, and to prevent their influence from spreading among weak Christians, has no direct reference to Christians and can become meaningful to Christians only when Christians become blinded with the same delusions which deceived those ancient Jews. Has this occurred? There is the possibility, at least, that it might occasionally have occurred in a few instances; but in general, the answer to this question is ABSOLUTELY NOT. The stereotype "moralist" who is usually made the whipping boy by certain commentators, and who is heralded as the modern counterpart of those reprobate Jews, is nothing but a figment of feverish imagination, a straw man that does not exist, and probably never has existed within the confines of the Christian faith since the Middle Ages, and whose stereotype description fits nobody at all.

Where is that so-called "moralist" who thinks that merely because he has been baptized, he is thus, per se, entitled to heaven, regardless of his conduct? Within the forty years and more of this writer’s experience as a minister of the gospel, he has never met even one Christian who believed anything like that. Where, then, do a hundred or more commentators, from Calvin and Luther to Lenski and Barrett, find their specimens of this strange, perverse person who is said to believe that baptism alone leads to eternal life, regardless of holiness or the lack of it, and who is diligently intent on leading the whole world through that door which, according to Lenski, is "not the door of heaven but the door of hell"? Any knowledge of Christians during the half-century immediately past, especially any knowledge of their earnest efforts to serve the Lord, must surely result in the conviction that the straw man so effectively shot at by so many for so long must long ago have disappeared. The stylized definition of that straw man is not only void of any resemblance whatever to the countless thousands of Christians this writer has been privileged to know, but is also void of any likeness to those reprobate Jews who were the object of Paul’s warning here.

Despite the straw man mentioned above, to which such impossible attitudes are attributed, there is, nevertheless, real danger in supposing that mere outward compliance with the Lord’s commandments, any or all of them, removes the need for true and genuine spirituality and devotion which are always the hallmark of authentic Christian faith. As Griffith Thomas summed it up:

While we must ever insist with all clearness and firmness on obedience to the ordinances of God, we must never fail to remember that the ordinances themselves, apart from genuine spiritual disposition of the recipients, never convey or guarantee the reception of grace. Ordinances are visible signs to which are annexed promises. Faith lays hold on the promises, and the signs are the pledges of God’s fulfillment of them; but, if there be no faith in the divine promise, there is nothing left for the ordinance to seal.(F22)

Thomas’ final sentence, quoted above, seems to imply that submission to the ordinance of God is dissociated from "laying hold of God’s promises," but such a view is wrong. In the case of baptism, for example, the submission to the ordinance is itself a part of the laying hold, for in that ordinance, faith becomes obedient; and the salvation Paul taught in Romans has nothing to do with anything else, other than an "obedient faith" (Romans 1:5; Romans 16:26, etc.).

Having at this point completed his argument concerning the sinfulness of all people, Jew and Gentile alike, and having established the broad principles of it, Paul then proceeded in the next chapter to answer some objections to it, employing the device of the diatribe as a vehicle for the conveyance of his thought.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Romans 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/romans-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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