Misplaced Confidence

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Romans 2:1-16

Don’t cheer too loudly

In our household, when one of our older two kids is spiralling into disobedience and bad reactions and getting in trouble from us, it’s not uncommon for the other child to suddenly start talking and acting as if they’re one of the grown-ups, saying it’s such a shame the other child is being so naughty, and helpfully suggesting that perhaps they should go get the wooden spoon for us or put the timer on for time out? As if they weren’t behaving in exactly the same way themselves less than an hour ago… 

Be careful not to cheer too loudly when others are getting what they deserve. It’s tempting isn’t it, to cheer from the side lines when ‘bad people’ – people who’ve pushed their way to the front in life and hurt others along the way, people who seem to have no real manners, no concern for others, no sense of decency – when these people get what they deserve. It’s tempting to cheer when a school bully picks on the wrong kid and gets beaten up, or when a CEO who’s been avoiding tax gets caught and fined or even sent to prison. It’s tempting to look at some people and think, I’m so glad God is coming to sort out the mess in this world and give these people what they deserve. And you know what? It’s true. They will get what they deserve, and it’s a good thing. But be careful not to cheer too loudly. Be careful not to look too smug about it while you wait… ‘cause chances are that you’ll be digging your own grave.

Th big idea of our passage today in Romans chapter 2 is that no one should look smugly on while others are denounced by God as sinful and deserving of judgement, because we’ll only be condemning ourselves. The Apostle Paul, who wrote the letter, is keen in this passage to dispel some assumptions that certain people can make about their own standing before God – about their immunity from God’s searching judgement on the last day. He wants us to know that God judges utterly impartially – there’s no favouritism with God. Everyone will get what they really deserve for how they’ve actually lived their life, and it’s no use hiding behind labels or claims for special treatment because of who you are and what group you belong to. Paul is saying, don’t be too quick to point the finger and cheer when others get what they deserve, because it’s coming your way too… no matter who you think you are. 

Therefore you who judge are without excuse

Chapter 2 begins with a sudden change in direction that can and should take us off guard a little. It’s quite similar to a brilliant scene in the Old Testament book, 2 Samuel, where the prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin with Bathsheba. I’ll leave you to read about it in 2 Sam 11, but basically David has sinned terribly by taking another man’s wife and then even orchestrating the death of the husband. It’s terrible. And the prophet Nathan comes and tells David a story about a rich man who had many, many sheep and livestock, but when a guest comes to stay, instead of using one of his own lambs, he takes and slaughters the one, precious little lamb of a poor man who lived down the street. David is enraged, crying out that this man deserves to be put to death! And then comes the twist, Nathan replies, “You are the man!” You. are. the. man… and yes, you’re right; you deserve to die.

It’s a brilliant strategy, and it leaves David cut to the heart. And the Apostle Paul does something very similar to us as readers of his letter to the Romans as he transitions from chapter 1 to chapter 2. You see in chapter 1 he has been denouncing the sinful, self-absorbed idolatry of the nations – the bad people ‘out there’ who’ve suppressed the knowledge of God and given themselves over to do whatever they want. And throughout this chapter he has constantly used the language of ‘they-they-they’… They didn’t glorify God, they worshiped created things instead of the creator, God handed them over to their sinful desires, they are full of greed, they are gossips, they invent ways of doing evil… they, they, they… 

And when some of us read this, we can’t help but nod our heads, thinking, that’s right, they are terrible. They deserve what’s coming to them. They are what’s wrong with this world. Certainly that’s what some of Paul’s readers in Rome would be tempted to think…

But now, suddenly Paul drops the third-person plural and goes for the second person singular. It’s no longer ‘them’, but ‘you’. Verse 1, ‘You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.’

‘You’, not necessarily ‘you all’

Now it’s important to appreciate what Paul’s doing here. You see he’s not necessarily talking directly to all his readers and saying that all of them fit this description. When Paul addresses his readers he uses the 2ndperson plural, but here it’s the singular form (unfortunately both forms are simply translated as ‘you’ in English). Paul is using the 2ndperson singular here as part of a literary device called a diatribe, where he frames a debate or conversation with a hypothetical opponent or student to make a point. You see the real purpose of this section is to develop his bigger argument about the hopeless situation for allof humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, through this confronting dialogue with a presumptuous self-righteous individual. But I’m sure he assumed some of his readers would rightly feel the sting of this ‘bait and switch’ tactic…

The point Paul’s making here is that ultimately none of us are any better than the ‘bad people’ out there, and so when you point the finger at other people and judge them, you’re actually condemning yourself… because you do the same things. Paul has already been establishing this very point in chapter 1 – that all of us have ultimately participated in the basic reality of turning away from God to worship ourselves or other aspects of creation – even though he has focused our attention on the extreme forms of this idolatry and sinfulness. And now, he draws out this foundational truth and points out the implications. If we point the finger at others, just remember that there’s three fingers pointing back at yourself, because you’re no different really. The more you judge others, the more you condemn yourself.

Do you really think youwill escape?

In verses 2-5 then, Paul builds on this basic challenge, and asks the rhetorical question – do you, a mere human, think that you can pass judgement on others and yet do the same things… and get away with it? Do you really think you will escape God’s judgement yourself?

He’s saying that some people tend to approach their relationship with God like someone with a close relative in a position of significant power. Like someone whose father is the chief of police or a high court judge. And so when they get pulled up for speeding and the police officer realises who they are, they quickly apologise and send them on their way (or at least they do in the movies)… But Paul’s point is it doesn’t work like that with God.

Presuming you’re all good with God because of who you are or what group you belong to is not a good idea. This is the key issue here. Presumption and arrogance in the face of God’s judgement, because you think you’re immune for some reason… which of course will only make things worse. Paul describes this as showing contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience, not realising that God is only being patient with you so that you will repent of your sin before it’s too late!

And so, Paul says, when you delude yourself into thinking that you’re fine the way you are, that you can stand before God’s judgement seat because you’re better than others, or because you belong to a certain privileged group… when you fail to actually repent of your sin and throw yourself on the mercy of God, because deep down you don’t think you really needto repent… well then you’re in for big, bad surprise. Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you’re just storing up wrath against yourself when God’s righteous judgement is revealed. Don’t think you will escape because of who you are, that’s just going to make things worse.

No special treatment 

From verse 6 through to verse 16, Paul reinforces this challenge against presuming immunity from God’s judgement by explaining that God really will judge all people on the basis of what they’ve done. There will be no special treatment, no favouritism, no letting in the back door because you belong to a certain religious or ethnic group. In the end, everyone is on equal footing before God and will face his just, searching and righteous judgement.

And at this point it becomes clear that Paul’s particular target is Jewish people who have indeed been presuming special treatment on judgement day because of their identity as God’s covenant people. The main point being argued in this section is that Jew and Gentile are judged in the same way in the end – have they actually obeyed God or have they sinned? And the main point being argued in the larger section, climaxing in chapter 3 verse 20 is that no one, neither Jew nor Gentile, will survive this impartial judgement based on works – all alike are enslaved under sin and condemned by God.

God’s Judgement will be impartial and based on works

So in verses 6 to 11, Paul makes the point that every human being, whether Jew or Gentile, will be judged on how they have lived their life, on what they’ve done. There is a mirror-like structure to these verses, which highlights the point:

6God will judge according to works

  7Those who do good will receive eternal life. 

8But wrath and anger for the selfish and evil. 

9Trouble and distress for everyone who does evil: first for the Jew,
then for the Gentile

10but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the
Jew, then for the Gentile

11For God does not show favoritism.

The second half mirrors the first half, working backwards, with the difference being that Paul inserts the phrase ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ in verses 9 and 10 to underline the point he’s making. And this point is stated in the first and last lines… God really will judge people according to what they’ve done – he won’t show favouritism, so stop thinking being Jewish changes the situation. 

The idea that a kind of ‘nominal’ obedience of the law – being circumcised, following rules about the sabbath etc… things that might have marked out Jewish people as different and ‘faithful’ so that it didn’t really matter how they lived their lives… this was a big mistake.

There’s no special treatment; God will pay you back what you deserve. If you do good; if you persistin doing good. If your life is just one long story of honouring God and seeking his glory, holiness and immortality… then great, you will receive eternal life. But for the rest of us, for every human being who is self-seeking and does evil… there is wrath and anger, trouble and distress. 

But what about the Law??

And Paul goes on to underline that it really doesn’t make any difference in the end whether someone has access to the Law of Moses, or is living in deepest, darkest Africa. The issue is sin, and we can sin by knowingly breaking God’s revealed Law. And we can sin simply by failing to live up to God’s standard, and in fact, such sin is often a knowing rejection of God’s will according to our conscience anyway. That’s the basic point of verses 12-16. 

Jewish identity and the privilege of having access to God’s law doesn’t really help in and of itself. For (verse 13), ‘it is not those who hearthe law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the lawwho will be declared righteous.’ This is just underlining what he’s said above. It matters what you do, not what group you belong to or what you know.

But at the same time, NOT having the law is no excuse either, because, as Paul points out in verses 14 and 15, ‘when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’

The point here is not that God will only judge people as having sinned if they or their culture views such things as sinful. No, as verse 12 states, ‘All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law.’ Sin is sin, and we will be judged because of it, whether we agree or not. But Paul draws attention to the fact that typically we do know better, even without the privilege of God’s revealed law. The fact that different cultures (often!) develop similar basic approaches to morality reveals that the requirements of God’s law is written deep in our hearts. And as individuals, our consciences confirm this – reassuring us that certain things are good, and convicting us that certain attitudes and actions are wrong.

And Paul finishes by pointing out that this inner witness of our own consciences will in fact be exposed on the final day when God judges us, taking into account even those things we thought no one else could ever possibly know. When you think that awful thought about someone, and your conscience pricks you and reminds you that you shouldn’t think about people like that… that very admission will be taken into account. The message that Paul is delivering is that there is a searching, righteous judgement headed our way that will expose us for who we really are and what we’ve really done, and no amount of pleading ignorance or connections or status will help. There is no favouritism with God. It’s a sobering thought… 

Salvation by good works?

But, you might be wondering, is it perhaps too sobering? Is this news too bad to be true, in light of the gospel of Jesus? For many of us, these verses, declaring that we will face God’s judgement according to our works, and either be judged good or bad, and so either receive eternal life or suffering… for many of us, it simply sounds wrong! It sounds like the opposite of what we say in church most weeks. It sounds like the kind of bad, typical religious thinking that we spend years in Kids Church and Youth Group trying to correct! It sounds like Paul’s getting his theology from the Netflix show, ‘the good place’! And frankly, doesn’t Paul himself say in this very same letter that no-one can be justified by works of the law?!How can he say here that people who do good will be rewarded with eternal life??

Well, you’re right to think that there’s more to the story. Although some understand Paul to be talking about Christians in verses 7 and 10, who, because of their faith in Jesus and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit satisfy God’s righteous demands, I don’t think that’s the best way to understand this passage. The key is to keep in mind how this passage fits into Paul’s broader argument in this part of the letter. You see, from 1:18 through to 3:20, Paul is building up one big idea – that all of humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, are hopelessly enslaved to sin and condemned by God’s righteous standard, with no hope of justifying themselves. And he’s establishing this foundational point as the backdrop to the wonderful news of the gospel – the fact that God’s saving righteousness has now been manifest through the gospel of Jesus Christ for all people, by faith, not by works of the law. He sums up both the bad news and the good news in Chapter 3:22-24, saying, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” 

And so in our passage today, he’s emphasising the particular point that outsideof God’s mercy available in Christ, no one is any better off than anyone else in the face of God’s judgement. Religious or ethnic identity badges don’t help you. Claiming ignorance won’t help you. It doesn’t matter who you are, who you’re related to, or how good or cultured or deserving you think you are. God’s judgement is impartial, and it’s coming your way.

Humble repentance is our only hope

So this passage is notsaying to Christians, you’d better make sure you’re good enough or you’re going to be condemned by God after all. That’s not the message to take away from today’s passage! And to anyone who’s not a Christian, this passage isn’t saying, “go on, try hard and maybe you’ll be able to be good enough for God and earn your acceptance with him.” It’s true, Paul is saying that if you wereperfect that would be an option, but so far Jesus has been the only one to succeed, and Paul doesn’t expect anyone else to.

No, this passage is saying to all of us that outside of God’s mercy in Christ, every single one of us faces the searching, exposing, absolutely just and fair judgement of God. It doesn’t matter who you are, there won’t be any special treatment, so stop judging others and assuming you’re all good with God.

The only hope is genuine, humble repentance and grateful trust in Christ and his sacrifice for you. That’s the truth he will go on to explain more fully, but it is there, in part, for us to see in our passage today. In verses 4 and 5 Paul makes it clear that what you want to avoid is smug presumption – thinking you’re ok as you are and that you’ve got nothing really to repent of. That kind of attitude will lead to a big bad surprise. And the flip side is of course that repentance is the only solution. In the face of the reality that we’re all sinners and that God will judge us all fairly based on our what we’ve done – who we really are in our heart of hearts and how that’s flowed into every thought, word and action… the only answer is desperate repentance and pleading for mercy. 

And that should remind you of the parable we read out from Luke’s gospel at the beginning of the service shouldn’t it? Two men go into the temple to pray. One of them a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.(Pharisees were typically very strict observers of the Law, whilst tax collectors were social outcasts, because they made money off their own people by working for the Romans.) The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

The Pharisee expresses exactly the kind of arrogant presumption that Paul is challenging in Romans chapter 2. He’s not a bad person. He is obviously careful to avoid certain sinful behaviour. And he’s praying to God – even thanking God for his good life! He’s got some good points! But the problem is he thinks he’s good enough. He thinks he’s fundamentally different to this tax-collector. He literally says, “Thankyou that I’m not like other people.” He smiles as he points his finger at ‘others’ and judges them as unworthy of God and his kingdom, all the while presuming he himself is worthy.

But Jesus and Paul proclaim the same message. If that’s the way you think about yourself and about other people, you’re deluded and you’re in for a big shock. Jesus explains that the sinful tax-collector went home justified before God – accepted by God and innocent in his sight – not because he’s good enough, but because he humbled himself, repented of his sin, and threw himself on the mercy of God. That’s our only hope. The Pharisee however went home alienated from God – held accountable for his own actions, destined to face the searching, exposing, impartial judgement of God for every thought, word and action. 

And do you see why? It’s because he trusted in his own righteousness, which is why of course, he saw fit to look down on others. Luke tells us that this is precisely the reason Jesus told the parable. Luke explains that he said this ‘to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.’ 

And this is the real warning for us. When we catch ourselves judging others and looking down on them, it’s almost always because we’ve lost sight of the fact that we are no different really, and we’ve started to presume that there’s something about us– our lifestyle or the group that we belong to or the kind of behaviours we manage to avoid – there’s something about us that means we are actually good enough. And when we think like this, we see no need to repent. We see no need for Christ and his righteousness. We presume we can face God’s judgement on our own, because we’re ok. And when we think like this, when that’s our ‘faith’… well then in the end, God will judge us accordingly. We will face God’s judgement on our own, according to what we’ve done… and we will be in for a big shock.

So don’t cheer too loudly when others are exposed as the sinners that they are. Don’t presume to judge. And certainly don’t presume that you yourself don’t need to repent and throw yourself on the mercy of God in Christ.