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Romans 2

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 1-4

"Therefore" seems more logically to relate back to Romans 1:18-19 than to Romans 1:21-32. Paul addressed those people who might think they were free from God’s wrath because they had not "practiced" the things to which Paul had just referred (Romans 1:29-32). The apostle now warned them that they had indeed "practiced" the same things (Romans 2:1). He seems to have been thinking as Jesus did when our Lord corrected His hearers’ superficial view of sin (e.g., Matthew 5-7). Evil desires constitute sin as well as evil actions.

The first principle by which God judges is that He judges righteously (Romans 2:2). He judges on the basis of what really exists, not what merely appears to be. For example, one might think that since his immoral thoughts are not observable he is free of guilt. But God looks at the heart. Consequently those who have practiced the same sins as those listed previously, though perhaps not in the same way, should not think they will escape judgment (Romans 2:3). Rather than acting like judges of the outwardly immoral these people should view themselves as sinners subject to God’s judgment. They should not misinterpret God’s failure to judge them quickly as an indication that they are blameless. They should realize that God is simply giving them time to repent (Romans 2:4; cf. Jeremiah 18:6-11; 2 Peter 3:9).

"Repentance plays a surprisingly small part in Paul’s teaching, considering its importance in contemporary Judaism. Probably this is because the coming of Christ had revealed to Paul that acceptance with God requires a stronger action than the word ’repentance’ often connoted at the time." [Note: Ibid., p. 134.]

Verses 1-8

B. The need of good people 2:1-3:8

In the previous section (Romans 1:18-32), Paul showed mankind condemned for its refusal to respond appropriately to natural (general) revelation. In this one (Romans 2:1 to Romans 3:8), his subject is more man’s failure to respond to special revelation. Since the Jews had more knowledge of this revelation than the Gentiles, they are primarily in view. As in the previous section, specific accusations follow general terms for sin (cf. Romans 1:18 with Romans 1:23; Romans 1:26-32; and Romans 2:1-16 with Romans 2:17-29).

Paul addressed those people who considered themselves exceptions to humankind’s general sinfulness in this section of the epistle. Obviously many people could say in his day, and still more say in ours, that they are not as bad as the people Paul described in chapter 1. The writer dealt with this objection more generally in Romans 2:1-16 and more specifically about Jewish objectors in Romans 2:17-29.

"Paul has still his statement in view, that the Gospel is the only power of God for salvation, and nothing to be ashamed of. If Judaism can save men, the Gospel is an impertinence; hence the radical failure of the Jew must be shown." [Note: Stifler, p. 36.]

"In chap. 2 . . . it is the second person singular, ’you,’ that Paul uses in making his accusation (Romans 2:1-5; Romans 2:17-29). This does not mean that Paul is now accusing his readers of these things; were he to do that, the second person plural would have been needed. Rather, Paul utilizes here, and sporadically throughout the letter, a literary style called diatribe. Diatribe style, which is attested in several ancient authors as well as elsewhere in the NT (e.g., James), uses the literary device of an imaginary dialogue with a student or opponent. Elements of this style include frequent questions, posed by the author to his conversation partner or by the conversation partner, emphatic rejections of possible objections to a line of argument using me genoito (’May it never be!’), and the direct address of one’s conversation partner or opponent." [Note: Moo, p. 125.]

Verses 1-16

1. God’s principles of judgment 2:1-16

Before showing the guilt of moral and religious people before God (Romans 2:17-29), Paul set forth the principles by which God will judge everyone (Romans 2:1-16). By so doing, he warned the self-righteous.

Verses 5-11

God’s wrath is increasing against sinners while He waits (Romans 2:5). Each day that the self-righteous person persists in his self-righteousness God adds more guilt to his record. God will judge him one day (cf. Revelation 20:11-15). That day will be the day when God pours out His wrath on every sinner and the day when people will perceive His judgment as righteous. This judgment is in contrast to the judgment that the self-righteous person passes on himself when he considers himself guiltless (Romans 2:1).

"God’s anger stored up in heaven is the most tragic stockpile a man could lay aside for himself." [Note: Mickelsen, p. 1188.]

The second principle of God’s judgment is that it will deal with what every person really did (Romans 2:6). It will not deal with what we intended or hoped or wanted to do (cf. Psalms 62:12; Matthew 16:27; et al.).

"A man’s destiny on Judgment Day will depend not on whether he has known God’s will but on whether he has done it." [Note: A. M. Hunter, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 36. Cf. Matthew 25:31-46.]

Paul probably meant that if a person obeys God perfectly, he or she will receive eternal life. Those who do not obey God perfectly receive wrath. Later he would clarify that no one can obey God perfectly, so all are under His wrath (Romans 3:23-24). [Note: Moo, pp. 139-42. Cf. Bruce, p. 85.]

Another view is that eternal life is not only a free gift, but it is also a reward for good deeds. On the one hand we obtain eternal life as a gift only by faith (Romans 3:20; Romans 4:5; cf. John 3:16; John 5:24; John 6:40; Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:5). However in another sense as Christians we experience eternal life to the extent that we do good deeds (cf. Romans 6:22; Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:29-30; John 10:10; John 12:25-26; John 17:3; Galatians 6:8). In this view Paul’s point was this. Those who are self-righteous and unbelieving store up something that will come on them in the future, namely, condemnation (Romans 2:5). Likewise those who are humble and believing store up something that will come on them in the future, namely, glory, honor, and immortality. Paul was speaking of the believer’s rewards here. [Note: See Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings, pp. 28, 135-45.]

Other interpreters believe Paul meant that a person’s perseverance demonstrates that his heart is regenerate. [Note: E.g., Witmer, p. 445; and Cranfield, 1:147.] However that is not what Paul said here. He said those who persevere will receive eternal life. One must not import a certain doctrine of perseverance into the text rather than letting the text speak for itself.

Romans 2:8 restates the reward of the self-righteous (cf. Romans 1:18). [Note: See López, "A Study . . ."] The point of Romans 2:9-10 is that the true basis of judgment is not whether one is a Jew or a Greek, whether he was outwardly moral or immoral. It is rather what he really does, whether he is truly moral or immoral. God will deal with the Jew first because his privilege was greater. He received special revelation as well as natural revelation.

"It is not possible to draw a clear distinction between psuche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). Psuche is from psucho, to breathe or blow, pneuma from pneo, to blow. Both are used for the personality and for the immortal part of man. Paul is usually dichotomous in his language, but sometimes trichotomous in a popular sense. We cannot hold Paul’s terms to our moderns psychological distinctions." [Note: Robertson, 4:392-93.]

The third principle of God’s judgment is that He will treat everyone evenhandedly (Romans 2:11). There is equal justice for all in God’s court.

Romans 2:6-11 contain one unit of thought. Note the chiastic structure of this passage. However in this chiasm the emphasis is not on the central element, as is common, but on the beginning and the end, namely, that God will judge everyone equitably and impartially.

Verses 12-16

The Gentiles do not have the Mosaic Law in the sense that God did not give it to them. Therefore He will not judge them by that Law. The Jews in Paul’s day did have it, and God would judge them by it (Romans 2:12). [Note: See Jeffrey S. Lamp, "Paul, the Law, Jews, and Gentiles: A Contextual and Exegetical Reading of Romans 2:12-16," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42:1 (March 1999):37-51.]

It is not hearing the Law that makes a person acceptable to God, but doing what it commands (Romans 2:13). "Justified" is a legal term that is suitable in this discussion of law observance. Justification is a legal verdict. It reflects a person’s position under the law. The justified person is one whom God sees as righteous in relation to His law (cf. Deuteronomy 25:1). The justified person is not necessarily blameless; he may have done things that are wrong. Nevertheless in the eyes of the law he is not culpable (blameworthy). He does not have to pay for his crimes. Paul said in Romans 2:13 that God would declare righteous the person who did not just listen to the Mosaic Law but did what it required. The Law warned that anything short of perfect obedience to it, even reading or studying it or hearing it preached and taught, which Jews relied on, made a person guilty before God (Deuteronomy 27:26; cf. Galatians 3:10). Moses therefore urged the Israelites to accept and believe in the promised Messiah (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:15).

Even Gentiles who do not have the Mosaic Law know that they should do things that are right and not do things that are wrong (Romans 2:14). Right and wrong are the basic elements of the Mosaic Law. Paul did not mean that Gentiles are indifferent to any law except what they invent in their own self-interest. He meant that they have a law that is instinctive, namely, an intuitive perception of what is right and what is wrong. All people have this. One writer sought to explain what Paul did not, namely, how human beings can and do know God’s moral law apart from special revelation. [Note: See Mark D. Mathewson, "Moral Intuitionism and the Law Inscribed on Our Hearts," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42:4 (December 1999):629-43.]

In addition to this innate sense of morality, Gentiles also have consciences (Romans 2:15). The New Testament presents the human conscience as a computer-like faculty. It has no pre-programmed data in it, but whatever a person experiences programs his or her conscience. If he learns that lying is wrong, for example, his conscience will from then on bring that information to his mind in appropriate situations. Therefore some individuals who grow up in cultures that value a particular practice that other cultures abhor, such as deception or treachery, have no conscience about being deceptive or practicing treachery. All people grow up learning that some things that are truly bad are bad and other things that are truly good are good. Thus our conscience, while not a completely reliable guide, is helpful as we seek to live life morally. [Note: See C. A. Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament; and Roy B. Zuck, "The Doctrine of Conscience," Bibliotheca Sacra 126:504 (October-December 1969):329-40.] The New Testament speaks of a good conscience (Acts 23:1; 1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Timothy 1:19), a clear conscience (Acts 24:16; 1 Timothy 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3; Hebrews 13:18), a guilty conscience (Hebrews 10:22), a corrupt conscience (Titus 1:15), a weak conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 8:10; 1 Corinthians 8:12), and a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2).

Romans 2:16 completes Paul’s earlier statement that God will judge impartially (Romans 2:11-13) and forms the end of an inclusio dealing with judgment that began with Romans 2:1-5. Romans 2:14-15 are somewhat parenthetical in the flow of his argument. They qualify his statement that the Gentiles have no law (Romans 2:12). In Romans 2:16 his point is that God’s impartial judgment will include people’s secret thoughts as well as their overt acts. Both thoughts and actions constitute deeds (Romans 2:6). Christ Jesus will be God’s agent of judgment (cf. Acts 17:31). "According to my gospel" means that the gospel Paul preached included the prospect of judgment. Throughout this section (Romans 2:1-16) the judgment of unbelievers (i.e., the great white throne judgment, Revelation 20:11-15) is in view.

In summary, to convict any self-righteous person of his guilt before God, Paul reminded his readers of three principles by which God will evaluate all people. He will judge righteously, in terms of reality, not just appearance (Romans 2:2). He will judge people because of their deeds, what they actually do both covertly and overtly (Romans 2:6). Moreover He will judge impartially, not because of how much or how little privilege they enjoyed but how they responded to the truth they had (Romans 2:11).

This last principle has raised a question for many people. Will God condemn someone who has never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ if he or she responds appropriately to the limited truth that he or she has? Paul later showed that no one responds appropriately to the truth that he or she has (Romans 3:23). All fail so all stand condemned. He also made it very clear that it is impossible to enjoy salvation without trusting in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17; Romans 10:9; cf. John 14:6). That is why Jesus gave the Great Commission and why the gospel is so important (Romans 1:16-17).

". . . Paul agreed with the Jewish belief that justification could, in theory, be secured through works. Where Paul disagreed with Judaism was in his belief that the power of sin prevents any person, even the Jew who depends on his or her covenant status, from actually achieving justification in that manner. While, therefore, one could be justified by doing the law in theory, in practice it is impossible . . ." [Note: Moo, p. 155.]

Verses 17-20

Paul had been speaking of Jews, included in the larger category of "good people," in Romans 2:1-16, but now he identified them by name. The Jews were very self-righteous. Paul explained the basis of their boasting in these verses.

The name "Jew" contrasts with "Greek" and calls attention to nationality. [Note: Sanday and Headlam, p. 64.] The Jews gloried in being members of God’s chosen nation (cf. Exodus 19:5-6). They relied on the Mosaic Law because God Himself had given it to Moses on Mt. Sinai. They boasted in their knowledge of God that they obtained through that covenant. They had a relatively precise understanding of what is more and less important to God (cf. Philippians 1:10). They looked down on non-Jews as those whom they guided even though, as Paul pointed out earlier, the Gentiles have some light and law themselves.

"The Jew believed that everyone was destined for judgment except himself. It would not be any special goodness which kept him immune from the wrath of God, but simply the fact that he was a Jew." [Note: Barclay, p. 35.]

In these verses Paul first referred to God’s gifts to the Jews (Romans 2:17) and then to the superior capabilities these gifts conferred on them (Romans 2:18). Finally he mentioned the role the Jews somewhat pretentiously gloried in playing. God had called them to enlighten the Gentiles with these gifts and capabilities (Romans 2:19-20). [Note: Godet, p. 127.]

Verses 17-29

2. The guilt of the Jews 2:17-29

Even though the Jews had the advantages of the Mosaic Law and circumcision, their arrogance and fruitlessness offset these advantages. Divinely revealed religion is no substitute for trust and obedience toward God. Romans 2:17-29 are similar to Romans 1:18-32. In Romans 2:17-29, Paul showed that Jews are guilty before God just as he formerly proved all humanity guilty. In both sections he pointed out that man knew the truth but rejected it and consequently became guilty of idolatry, sensuality, and immorality.

"In the previous section Paul addressed his Jewish readers in a relatively restrained manner. But here the mood changed. Once again he employed the diatribe style that he used in the opening verses of chap. 2. His tone became quite severe as he laid out before them the absolute necessity of bringing their conduct into line with their profession. From this point on to the end of the second major division (Romans 3:20), we hear Paul the preacher convincing his listeners of their need for a different kind of righteousness. Although in another letter he claimed that his preaching was not eloquent (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), it is hard to deny that here in Romans we are dealing with the dynamic rhetoric of an evangelist bent on persuasion." [Note: Mounce, pp. 97-98.]

"Paul here claims for the Jew nothing more than what the Jews of his day were claiming for themselves; every item on the list in Romans 2:17-20 is paralleled in Jewish literature of the time." [Note: Moo, p. 159.]

Verses 21-24

With a series of rapier-like interrogations (rhetorical questions) Paul poked holes in the Jews’ hypocritical facade. Evidently it was not uncommon for Jews to rob the temples of the pagan Gentiles (Romans 2:22; cf. Acts 19:37). They may have done this by using the precious metals from idolatrous articles stolen from pagan temples (cf. Deuteronomy 7:26). [Note: Ibid., p. 129.] By doing so, they betrayed their own idolatry, which was love of money. Furthermore, rather than staying away from what they professed to abhor, they went after pagan idols. The Jews’ Gentile neighbors saw their inconsistency and despised Yahweh because of it (Romans 2:24). The Jews did not apply their own teaching to themselves. Paul backed up his claim with a quotation from Isaiah 52:5.

Undoubtedly Paul did not mean that every single Jew practiced these sins, but these sins represented the contradiction between claim and conduct that marked Judaism.

Verses 25-27

Next to the Mosaic Law, the Jews boasted almost equally in their circumcision. Most of the Jews in Paul’s day believed that God would not permit any observant Jew to enter perdition.

"R. [Rabbi] Levi said; In the Hereafter Abraham will sit at the entrance to Gehenna, and permit no circumcised Israelite to descend therein. What then will he do to those who have sinned very much? He will remove the foreskin from babes who died before circumcision and set it upon them [the sinners], and then let them descend into Gehenna . . ." [Note: Midrash Rabbah, Genesis , 1:409-10. Cf. Genesis Rabbah, trans. Jacob Neusner, 2:182.]

Another rabbinic view was that God will send an angel who stretches the foreskin of great sinners and then they descend into Gehenna. [Note: Midrash Rabbah, Exodus, pp. 234-35.] The Jews felt circumcision guaranteed their acceptance by God, provided they did not sin "very much" (as some Christians believe baptism guarantees salvation). Paul reminded such people that reality is more important than profession and obedience more vital than testimony. Circumcision would not shield them from God’s wrath if they failed to do all He commanded.

". . . in contrast to Jewish teachers, who held that only a radical decision to renounce the covenant invalidated one’s circumcision, Paul argues that simple transgression of the law can have the same effect." [Note: Moo, p. 169.]

"In the Greek this second part of Romans 2:25 is interesting: ’If you are a lawbreaker, your circumcision has become a foreskin.’" [Note: Witmer, p. 447.]

In our day cans and bottles have labels on them to indicate what is inside. Circumcision was a label and implied that the Jew was obedient to God. However if he was not completely obedient the label was not only worthless but misleading. The contents of the can are more important than the label. Similarly if a Gentile was completely obedient to God the absence of the label of circumcision was not of major consequence. The Jews had put more emphasis on the presence of the label than on the contents of the can. Paul’s point was that disobedience brings condemnation and perfect obedience theoretically brings salvation, regardless of whether one is a Jew or a Gentile.

"Israel’s neighbours for the most part practiced circumcision (the Philistines were a notorious exception); but the circumcision of Israel’s neighbours was not a sign of God’s covenant, as Israelite circumcision was intended to be." [Note: Bruce, p. 89.]

The reference to the "letter" (Romans 2:27) probably means that the Jews had the Law written down.

Verses 28-29

We now discover a second reason Paul chose to address his fellow Israelites as Jews in this section (Romans 2:17-29). Not only was "Jew" a title that non-Jews used to describe Israelites, but the word "Jew" comes from the name "Judah," which means "praise." Paul was saying the person who really praises God is not one who merely wears the label of circumcision but one who really obeys God. Such a person has a circumcised heart (cf. Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:25-26; Ezekiel 44:9). Heart circumcision is a spiritual operation that the Holy Spirit performs, not a physical operation that conforms to the letter of the Mosaic Law. The truly obedient person will not only praise God, but God will also praise him. He will not just receive the praise of men for his professed obedience to God.

"These verses [Romans 2:25-29] must be kept in their context, which is that Paul is dealing with Jews and making a distinction between Jews who believe and Jews who do not believe. He is not teaching that every Gentile Christian is a spiritual Jew. Rather, he is teaching that every Jew is not a full Jew. A completed Jew is one who has had both circumcisions, the circumcision of the flesh, which is outward in obedience to the Abrahamic covenant, and an inward circumcision of the heart as an act of obedience to the new covenant." [Note: Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, "Israel and the Church," in Issues in Dispensationalism, pp. 128-29. See also Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace, p. 86; and Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, pp. 195-98.]

In Romans 2:17-29 Paul’s point was that perfect obedience is more important that religious privilege. Even though the Jews boasted in outward matters, the law and circumcision, they were guilty of failing God inwardly, as were the Gentiles. Really a God-fearing Gentile was more pleasing to God than a disobedient Jew because God delights in obedience.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Romans 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.