In the first sixteen verses of the next chapter another class is brought into view: it is the world of culture and refinement. Surely among the educated, the followers of the various philosophic systems, will be found men who lead such righteous lives that they can come into the presence of God claiming His blessing on the ground of their own goodness! Certainly there were those who professed to look with disgust and abhorrence upon the vile lewdness of the ignorant rabble, but were their private lives any holier or any cleaner than those whom they so loudly condemned?
It is now their turn to be summoned into court, so to speak, where the apostle fearlessly arraigns them before the august tribunal of “the righteous Lord, who loveth righteousness.” “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” Philosophy does not preserve its devotee from the indulgence of the flesh. A recognition of the evil is not necessarily power to overcome the evil. Culture does not cleanse the heart nor education alter the nature; and it is against the doer of evil that the judgment of God according to truth will be rendered. To praise virtue while practising vice may enable one to get by with his fellows, but it will not deceive Him who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.
Sternly he asks, “Thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” Men are inclined to consider that God is condoning their ways, if “sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily,” whereas He waits in long-suffering mercy that men may have opportunity to face their sins and own their guilt, thus finding mercy. Instead of doing this, after the hardness and impenitence of their hearts, men, untouched by divine grace, “treasure up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds.”
What a solemn expression is this-“Treasuring up,” or storing up, “wrath against the day of wrath!” How apt was the answer of the poor old colored woman who when taunted with the folly of believing in a “lake of fire and brimstone” because “no such an amount of brimstone could be found in one place,” exclaimed solemnly, “Ebry-one takes his own brimstone wif’ him!” Ah, that is it! Each rebel against God, each sinner against light, each violator of his own conscience, carries his own brimstone with him! He is making his own destiny.
Properly, I believe, we should consider verses Romans 2:7-15 as parenthetical, not merely Romans 2:13-15, as indicated in the Authorized Version. In these verses great principles of judgment are laid down which should forever silence the caviler who would charge God with unrighteousness because some have light and privileges that others do not enjoy.
Judgment will be “according to truth” and “according to deeds.” Men will be judged by the light they have had, not by the light they never knew. Eternal life is offered to all who “by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, honor and incorruptibility.” (Observe it is not immortality, but incorruptibility. The distinction is of great importance, though the two terms are often confounded in the Authorized Version.) If any were so characterized, it would prove that there was a divine work in the soul; but where is the natural man who so lives? Well then, “unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness,” there can but be meted out in the day of judgment “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil,” whether privileged Jew or ignorant Gentile.
It is not that God will deal in indiscriminate judgment with all men therefore; but light given will be the standard by which they are judged. None can complain, for if one but “follow the gleam” he will find light enough to guide his steps and ensure his salvation. If, by the light of nature, men realize their responsibility to their Creator, He will make Himself responsible to give them further light unto the salvation of their souls.
With Him there is no respect of persons. The greater the privileges, the greater the responsibility. But where privileges are comparatively few, He regards ignorant men with no less interest and tender compassion than He does those whose outward circumstances are seemingly better.
“As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.” No principle could be sounder. Men are held responsible for what they know, or might know if they would. They are not condemned for ignorance unless that ignorance be the result of the wilful rejection of light. “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.”
The parenthetical verses Romans 2:13-15 emphasize the plain principle already laid down so forcibly. Judgment is according to deeds. To know the law and fail to obey it only increases the condemnation. Doers of the law will be justified, if such there are. But elsewhere we learn that from this standpoint all would be lost, for “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” The Jew prided himself upon being in possession of the divine oracles and thought this made him superior to the Gentile nations round about. But God has not left Himself without witness; to these nations He has given both the light of conscience and the light of nature. They shew “the work of the law written in their hearts.” Observe, it is not that the law is written in their hearts. That is new birth, and is the distinctive blessing of the New Covenant. If the law were written there they would fulfil its righteousness. But the work of the law is quite another thing. “The law worketh wrath.” It is a “ministry of condemnation.” And Gentile sinners who never heard of the Sinaitic code have a sense of condemnation resting upon them when they live in violation of the dictates of their divinely-implanted conscience which testifies either for or against them-“accusing or else excusing one another.” This is experimental proof that they are on the ground of responsibility and that God will be righteous in judging them in that solemn day when the Man Christ Jesus will sit upon the august tribunal of the ages and manifest the secret motives and springs of conduct. This, Paul says is “according to my gospel.” He declares that the Crucified will sit upon the throne at the last great assize. “God hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men in that He hath raised Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). With all that the apostle had written concerning the sinfulness and degeneracy of the Gentiles, whether barbarian or highly civilized, the Jew would be in fullest agreement. They were “dogs,” outside of the Abrahamic covenant, “aliens to the commonwealth of Israel.” Their judgment was just, for they were the enemies of God and His chosen people. But it was otherwise with the Hebrews. They were the elect of Jehovah, the chosen race to whom God had given His holy law and favored with abundant tokens of His special regard. So they reasoned, forgetting that holding correct doctrine does not avail if practical righteousness be overlooked or disregarded.
The apostle suddenly summons the proud worldly Sadducee and the complacent Pharisee into court, and proceeds to arraign them along with the despised Gentiles. Verses Romans 2:17-29 give us the examination of the chosen people.
“Behold,” he exclaims, “thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest His will, and approvest the things that are more excellent (or, triest things that differ; see margin), being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law” (vers. Romans 2:17-20). In these masterly clauses he sums up all their pretensions. And when I say pretensions, I do not mean pretences. These were the things in which they gloried and they were largely true. God had revealed Himself to this people as to no other, but they were wrong in supposing that this exempted them from judgment if they failed to keep His covenant. He had said long before, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:3).
Privilege increases responsibility. It does not, as they seemed to think, set it aside. The knowledge of the divine oracles gave to the Jew a standard of judgment that no others had. Therefore, how much holier should be his life! Were the Israelites then a more righteous people than the nations about them? On the contrary, they failed more miserably than those of less light and fewer privileges.
Incisively the Spirit of God drives home the truth as to their actual state, in four questions calculated to expose the inmost secrets of their hearts and to lay bare the hidden sins of their lives. “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” You are so confident that you are fitted to instruct the ignorant, have you heeded the instruction given in the law? No answer!
“Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?” Throughout the ancient world the Jew was looked upon as the arch-thief, using every cunning device known to the money-lender and usurer to part his clients from their wealth. True, driven by desperation, the Gentile voluntarily put himself into the hand of the Jewish pawnbroker, but he knew as he did so that he was dealing with one who had no niceties of pity or compassion for an indigent debtor when the debtor was a hated Gentile dog. The Jew is again speechless.
“Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery?” Lechery of the gravest kind was not an uncommon offence in Israel, as the divine records prove and as history bears witness. The evil is in the very nature of man. Out of the heart proceed fornication, lasciviousness, and every unclean thing. In this respect the Jew is as guilty as his Gentile neighbor. He has no reply.
Perhaps the keenest thrust is in the last question of all. “Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?” The word translated “commit sacrilege” really means “to traffic in idols.” This was an offence of which the Jew was peculiarly guilty. Abhorring images, he nevertheless was often known to act as a go-between in disposing of idols stolen from the temples of a conquered people and those ready to purchase them in other districts. He was even charged with systematically robbing temples and then selling the images. The town-clerk of Ephesus had this in mind when he said, “Ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of temples (not, churches), nor yet blasphemers of your goddess” (Acts 19:37). So this was indeed a home-thrust, exposing at once the hypocritical character of the man who professed detestation of idolatry and all its works, and yet was not above profiting financially at the expense of idolators in a manner so thoroughly dishonest.
So the apostle drives home the tremendous indictment! “For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written” (ver. Romans 2:24). This their own prophets had declared, and he but insists upon what Scripture and their consciences confirmed.
To trust in circumcision, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, while walking in so carnal a manner, was but deceiving themselves. Ordinances do not profit if that of which the ordinance speaks is neglected. The uncircumcised Gentile, if he walk before God in righteousness, will be accounted as circumcised, whereas the covenant-mark on the flesh of a Jew will only add to his condemnation if he lives in opposition to the law.
It is reality that counts with God. The true Jew (and “Jew” is a contraction of “Judah,” meaning, “Praise”) is not one who is such by natural birth alone, or by outward conformity to ritual, but one who is circumcised in heart, who has judged his sinfulness in the sight of the Lord, and who now seeks to walk in accordance with the revealed will of God. “Whose praise (note the play on the word Jew) is not of man but of God” (vers. Romans 2:26-29).
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Romans 2". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany