Summary: How do you know if your good is good enough? What do you compare your goodness with to know? Get answers to these questions as Paul bursts some "human" bubbles.
Many years ago, prior to 9-11, as a reporter I would need to go to crime scenes or get into events in order to get good shots and interviews—do my job essentially. But sometimes there were security types who somehow didn’t believe that a news truck, news camera, and reporter/photographer made up an actual real-life TV reporting team. So my photographer came up with this brilliant idea—we’d make our own press pass. So we took digital pictures of ourselves (early in the days of digital photography), put some official looking words on paper and then laminated the cards. I even used the bar code on my Costco card just to add to the realism.
Thing is, it worked, as dorky as our “press passes” were. I think when it comes to gaining access to God, sometimes we have our own “press pass” that we want to pass off as making us genuinely worthy of entering God’s presence. That “press pass” could be our affiliation with a certain group, an act or ceremony we’ve performed, or the possession of something that makes us special.
In reality, none of that washes. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we think we have earned or had done to us—God knows what we are really like. In verse 6 Paul says “he will render to each according to his works.” The word “render” there (some translations use “reward”) mans to recompense or pay back, either for good or evil. You might say it’s like Newton’s Law of Motion: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
So if you do good, you will get a reward, and if you do evil, you will receive wrath. The problem is our definition of “good” is not the same as God’s. Compared to Him, our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and there is no amount of good that can wipe away any amount of evil we do. Jesus said “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
That doesn’t stop some from trying to justify themselves before God. They do it either through what they possess (the Law), who they are (Jews), or by outward appearance (circumcision). Paul will burst each of those bubbles in this section of chapter 2.
1. Ignorance of the law is no excuse (12 – 16)
13 – Being like God, not hearing what God is like is the key (James 1:22-24)
The Jews would have to perfectly obey the Law in order to be “justified” (“declared righteous”). No Jews have succeeded in doing that. We need to remind ourselves that Paul is talking absolutes here. There are no degrees of righteousness with God, you are either right or not, as illustrated by James:
James 2:10-11 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. NKJV
14 – 15 The conscience acts to show us the character of God and how we do or do not measure up to it. It’s a crude instrument, though—only by looking into God’s Word do we see just how far away from God’s goodness we are.
16 – On the Day of Judgment, God will reveal the secrets of our hearts and show us where we have and have not been like Him in His goodness. Jew or Gentile, this will be “by Jesus Christ.” Jesus is our “advocate” and “mediator”. If judgment goes through Him then we are “declared righteous”. If we don’t use Jesus as a mediator then we will find ourselves lacking in the ability to be found good like God.
2. Reliance on the Law cuts both ways (17 – 24)
The Jewish nation had a special place. They were the receivers of God’s Word, they were supposed to be a light to the world about the true character of God and the benefits of having a relationship with Him, and they formed the womb for the Rescuer, Jesus the Messiah.
The problem was that they failed in two out of three of those charges. (1) They received the Law, but instead of being convicted by their lack of ability to follow it, they worshipped it. This became even more pronounced after the fall of Jerusalem. Jewish leaders basically purported that having the Law virtually guaranteed them a right relationship with Yahweh. And (2) instead of being a light to the Gentiles, they became an exclusive club to keep everyone else out.
Jesus said it well:
Luke 11:46-47"Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.”
Paul is saying, you think you are so wonderful as a Jew who has the Law—you think you are so much better than the Gentile who is like a blind little child. Yet having the Law is not the same as obeying it.