[July 25]—Next!

Romans 2:1-16

            Now we’re finally back into the book of Romans. Remember, we have to get through the bad news before we get to the Good News, and how bad can it get! The entire second half of chapter one gets darker and darker and darker: Humanity started out knowing God (or at least knowing about him) via Adam and then Noah, but they didn’t acknowledge him or worship him or thank him as he deserved, and that started them on a downward spiral. They went from bad to worse: egregious sexual immorality flourished, what little knowledge about the Lord dwindled, and then society went rotten like exposed meat in the desert sun. Not only did people sin more and more—both against the Lord and against each other (frequently violently)—they invented ways of doing evil, and publicly celebrated their sin and encouraged others to join in.
            But Paul was mainly talking about the Gentiles in chapter one, or so one might think. The Jews were different. They had God’s Law given to them through Moses, laws which left no ambiguity as to what he expected of them. He directly and openly intervened in their history, with theophanies and miraculous deliverances. He’d given them the prophets. He revealed things about himself—his nature, his character, his expectations—which he didn’t reveal to anyone else on earth. Unlike those filthy uncircumcised Gentiles, they knew the Lord. They were special.
            Well, yes, in a way they were special. There’s no denying that they had more revelation than the Gentiles. In fact, theologians have terms for this: General Revelation (which everyone has access to) and Special Revelation (in which God has to initialize, since we’d never figure it out on our own). For more on this, see here
            But here’s where the Jewish people really misunderstood things. They thought that just because they had the Law, God was smiling on them. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) premise was that the Lord had a double standard: One for the Jews and one for the Gentiles. Well, they were partially right. In a sense, he did have a different standard for them: A higher one. The Law would be an incredible blessing, an unmitigated good if they'd kept it.
            In a far deeper sense, of course, there is no double standard. As verse 11 puts it, “God does not show favoritism.” But remember Jesus’ chilling words: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” That’s his unbending principle. He hasn’t given the same amount of revelation to everyone, but everyone will be judged according to the light they have. The more light, the stricter the judgment.
            That’s Paul’s point here, probably addressed to Jews who’d tend towards feeling self-righteous and more-holy-than-thou regarding the Gentiles. Most Jews reading the last half of chapter one would see Paul’s prognosis of sinful humanity and say “Amen! Those filthy Gentiles! You have them described to a ‘T.’ Thank God I’m not like that!” If this sounds vaguely familiar, there’s a reason.
            To that misunderstanding, Paul offers some tough love. If they thought they were pleasing God and following his Law, they weren’t. What they accused the Gentiles of doing, they were doing as well. They were the ultimate hypocrites, passing judgment on others while doing the same things (vs. 3). And in doing so, in their self-righteous pride, they were doing nothing but “storing up wrath against [themselves] for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” On that Day, he'll judge “people’s secrets through Jesus Christ.” To the outside world, they looked like godly, righteous people who barely sinned, if at all. But the Lord knew their heart, and the Law which they supposedly prized so highly--the subject of all their boasting—would only serve to condemn them even more harshly.
            That’s the main point of this passage, serving up some tough love to religious men who thought that they were righteous before God based on their works or their heritage or because they were “special” in his eyes. But before we move on I need to address part of this passage which might seem a little mysterious. Who is Paul talking about in vss. 7-11? At first glance it sounds like he’s abandoning this whole “We’re all sinners and can’t be saved by our own works” theology. Basically he says that if someone seeks after God and lives righteously, if they “do good,” then they could earn eternal life. But if they turn away from him and “do evil,” then the Lord will punish them. Doesn’t this contradict the Message Paul was proclaiming?
            Not at all. What's the magic word again, the one word that clears up so much confusion about the Bible? Context, context, context.  If a person actually sought God and lived righteously, he would reward that, and if they were good enough, he would give them eternal life. But there's no one who'd qualify for this blessing. In the very next chapter, Paul makes it crystal clear that “There is no one righteous, not even one. . .there is no one who seeks God. . . there is no one who does good, not even one [emphasis mine].” Again, that’s the main point of the first three chapters of Romans: We’re all sinners before him, and no one is good enough. He gave us a set of rules, and we didn’t follow them. That’s our problem. We didn't need a little tweaking here and there, or a new set of rules. We desperately needed a Savior.
            So he sent one.

Lord Jesus, I confess that I sometimes resemble that Pharisee in your story more than I’d like to admit. Search me out, and if you find any self-righteousness, pull it out by the roots. Whatever it takes. Please. 

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