Summary: This is an installment in my expository series through the book of Romans.

“And Justice for All”

Romans 2:12-29

October 5, 2008

52. That’s the usual speed at which they nab me, at least in a 35; it’s 62 in a 45, something about 17 miles over the speed limit that tends to grab the attention of the nice officers. In my defense, it’s usually on a road where I assume the speed limit is higher than it actually is that I get my tickets…I mean, isn’t ignorance of the law an excuse? It isn’t? Oh…then again, my ignorance can much of the time be traced to a casual attitude toward the importance of knowing the speed limit; often, I’m just not paying attention like I should be, because the signs are there. Sometimes, though, I know the speed limit—and still drive faster than I should. I know the law—and yet I violate it sometimes anyway—when it comes to the speed limit. Don’t look so smug…

After introducing the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ, which Paul says is powerful to produce eternal salvation in the lives of all who believe, he then launches into a significant discussion, not of God’s amazing grace that brings salvation, but of man’s predilection to sin. Grossly. Repeatedly. Religiously, some might say. And so we talked, in the second half of Romans 1, of how the pagan world had suppressed the truth of God and turned to all manner of wickedness. Last week, we considered the case of the moralizing hypocrite, who’d roundly and quickly condemn the “sinners”, but then turn around and practice the very same things himself. Today, we continue in that vein. John Piper wrote that, “…there are probably some very profound reasons for this lingering over the sinfulness of Gentiles and Jews. I think of two at least. One is that the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone simply does not land on us as overwhelmingly good news until we have some deeper sense of our sinfulness and hopelessness before God. The other reason Paul may draw out his demonstration of our sinfulness is that we are so resistant to seeing it and feeling it.”

We have forgotten about sin, choosing instead to blame problems on pathologies and psychoses. We aren’t sinful; we’re just sick! That language has captured our conversations; read of some terrorist blowing up a bus, and the response you’ll get will be, “that’s just sick!” No, it isn’t…it’s sinful. If our problems are due to an illness, then we’re let off the hook; we can’t be to blame for simply being sick!

Paul keeps beginning his sections with prepositions; of course, he didn’t write what he wrote with today’s sermon in mind, so we’ll forgive him that! This one begins with “for”, linking his words to what he has said previously. God, Paul has argued, will render to each person according to what he has done, and it doesn’t matter if that person is a pagan with no “religious background”, or that person is a religious Jew who has been part of the synagogue all his life and devoted himself to living by the Law. God’s judgment will be the same, and He will judge impartially. In the original language, the term translated here “shows no partiality”, and in the KJV as “no respect of persons”, literally means “God does not receive the face” of an individual; in other words, He doesn’t look on the outside, but on the inside. And in this respect, He is impartial.

That said, He will not judge us all the same, but in the light of your exposure to the revelation of God in your life. How would He be impartial if He judged everyone on the basis of the Law of God, when many never read the Law of God, were never exposed to its teachings, never had its guidance? And Paul answers that it’s in light of the light we do have that each of us will be judged. Notice

I. God’s Justice for Jew and Gentile Alike :12-16

The Judgment of Gentiles without the Law

“Perish” does not indicate annihilation; in the original language, the term used here refers to something that is ruined to such a degree that it cannot be used for its original purpose—in this case, glorifying God for eternity. Now, I believe that the fact that these people did not have the law of God will greatly determine the severity of their ruin, and their experience of hell; I think that’s what Paul is saying about perishing “without the law”, I believe that Christ’s words in Luke 12 bear this out:

“…that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

Even without the law, man sins; it’s part of his innate nature, just as I have the ability to transgress the speed limit even when I don’t know what it is. Sometimes, as I said earlier, I just don’t care enough to want to know what the speed limit is! And thus the judgment of God will fall upon those who, though without law, still sin.

If not in the form of written law, like the Jews had, the law is written in the hearts of people, no matter their circumstance, through the element of conscience. Every society on earth—every single one—has standards of right and wrong, and these standards flow, I believe, from the imprint of God’s law on the human being as one made in God’s image. Sometimes, these norms vary to some degree from God’s holy standard, and that fact is not reserved for pagan society; it happens in America as well, as we increasingly glorify things that ought not be glorified. I’m in the middle of a conversation with an atheist on my website; to his credit, so far it’s been cordial. He told me that, though he doesn’t believe in the existence of God, he does believe that such a thing as evil exists. I am dying to know how he can make that statement. My answer is simple: God has imprinted something of His moral law on the hearts of every person. And I believe that that’s a key point Paul is making here.

Moreover, every person has violated his conscience at one time or another, without exception. We are without excuse, and so alike, the Jew and Gentile are under the just judgment of God. God will not only judge our actions, but “the secrets of our hearts”, which includes our motives and inner attitudes. “We all sin in many ways”, the Bible tells us, and we can do the right thing in the wrong way or for the wrong reason. God knows and judges it all.

II. The Claims of the Jews - :17-20

Then Paul turns to those who know the law—and yet sin anyway. This referred to the Jews in Paul’s writing here, the people to whom God had entrusted His righteous decrees for living. God had given His law to them through Moses, recorded in the first five books of our Bibles. And some might say, “We Jews are the custodians of the law of God! And we have the sign of circumcision as God’s covenant-keeping people!” Objection overruled: it isn’t about having the law of God, but about keeping it. The guy I borrowed this sign from, over on County Services Road, is surrounded by signs that talk about the limits on freedom: speed limit signs, stop signs, you name it. I guarantee you he speeds, that he pulls those “rolling stops”, that he fails to observe all the laws with which he is constantly surrounded. Ever see a policeman speeding down the road when his lights weren’t flashing? Here’s the thing: the Jews of whom Paul was writing had the law, but didn’t keep it—just like we know what God requires, yet fail to live up to His Word!

Since Jews have been instructed out of the Law, there are some boasts they can naturally make:

• Rely on God

• Boast in God – To be rightfully joyful in one’s relationship with God, to boast that “our God is an awesome God”, is entirely appropriate!

• Know His will

• Approve the right things – Discernment of right from wrong, on the basis of God’s law.

These are all legitimate. Further, he says, because of your grounding in the Law, you have confidence that you can be of help to others, to the blind and unknowing, etc. The Jews, in other words, have the light, and they shine the light. Pretty good, huh? Not so fast…

III. The Hypocrisy of the Jews - :21-24

The problems are at least two: one, the Jews were not obeying the law that they had. As Paul puts it, you don’t keep the Law you profess to love! You are guilty of breaking the Law, even as you talk about how much you love it. Christ set the standard, remember; He said that it wasn’t a matter of slavish outward legalism, but of the heart, that a person could commit the sin of adultery by committing the sin of lust, the sin of murder simply by hating his brother, the sin of theft by coveting. Some of those sins are secret sins, sins that nobody will even be aware of in this lifetime, but God can and will judge those sins! Some were committing these sins, while others, even in Jewish society, were guilty of the actual sins themselves.

Two, to the degree that their keeping of those rules and regulations represented a man-centered, faithless approach to God, they were wrong even as they obeyed the rules. If in keeping the Law outwardly and legally, we rob God of what pleases Him—faith—then we have broken the intent of the Law.

AJ Jacobs, wrote: “The Year of Living Biblically is about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible. I obey the famous ones:

• The Ten Commandments

• Love thy neighbor

• Be fruitful and multiply

But also, the hundreds of oft-ignored ones.

• Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers.

• Do not shave your beard

• Stone adulterers”

For a year, Jacobs tried to keep every single law found in the Old Testament. But was he “living Biblically”? No…he was following rules, slavish rule-keeping, attempting to keep the law of God. I’m sure he didn’t fully achieve it, but what if he had? He’d have done what any of us would have: felt a smug sense of satisfaction, perhaps even bragged about it to someone else. The Jews had the law of God and bragged about it; they thought that because they possessed the law, they were on special terms with God, but no, they didn’t keep it, and when they did keep it, they didn’t generally do so out of faith. All of these things represented hypocrisy on the part of the Jews. But what is a real Jew?

IV. The Mark of True Jews - :25-29

Paul’s argument sounds odd to our ears in 2008, for a variety of reasons:

• Some people who are born Jews aren’t really Jews.

• Some uncircumcised Gentiles may actually become Jews.

• Why would a Gentile care?

Circumcision served as a sign and seal of the covenant between God and His people, Israel. But the ritual did not serve as a substitute for obedience. Yet, the Jews believed that it had almost a superstitious quality to it, like those who put plastic Jesus on their dashboards or baseball players who make the sign of the cross before stepping to the plate. Jews were saying, of circumcision, that “membership has its privileges”; Paul was saying, “membership has its responsibilities!” More important than physical signs is obedience, and those Gentiles who did not have the sign of circumcision would be counted righteous if they evidenced changed hearts by obedience to God. Here’s how Paul puts it in Romans 9:30-32: "What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works."

Deuteronomy 30:6 promised, "The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live." And so on the basis of the inward change wrought by God’s Holy Spirit, Gentiles who do not have the law could/would sit in judgment on Jews, who though they had the law, were not fulfilling the real demands of that law, no matter how much they might conform to some of its outward constraints.

We can make the same mistake today that they did, when we substitute outward things for inward change brought about by God. What matters is not outward symbols and signs, but an inwardly-changed heart which evidences itself in outwardly-changed living. What matters to God is the inward work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We can today undergo the outward sign of baptism, for instance, but if there is no saving faith in our lives, we’re merely getting wet. As Stott writes, “It is a grave mistake to exalt the sign at the expense of what it signifies.” A real Jew, on the other hand, is one who is part of the redeemed people of God, made up of people representing every nation and people group on earth. It’s us, if we know Christ as Savior.

In building his argument, Paul now has demonstrated that God, the Judge of all the earth, will not be partial in His judgment, that He will not allow the possession of the law or religious rituals to cloud His judgment. One more week of considering the depth of our sinfulness, and we get to the answer, the glorious gospel of Christ, which saves and changes us that we may live free.

Table Talk

• Why are people reluctant to call sin ‘sin’? Do you think that Christians sometimes fall into this trap, and if so, why?

• What are some of the things people try to substitute for allowing God to change them from the inside out?