God will Judge the Secrets of Men by Jesus Christ

Paul is not interested in sparing our feelings in his discussion of human sin and divine judgment. He can do no good by giving us false encouragement that we are not so bad as to deserve eternal punishment. No, he multiplies the evidence of our corruption and volitional rebellion against law and righteousness. He does not spare us. Before he makes his assault on the receivers of special divine revelation, Paul makes the point that all are under the same absolute standard of righteousness. The law revealed in words and by writing on tablets, is in essence no different from the law originally implanted in the moral nature of God’s image bearers—necessarily so. It would be impossible for God to make moral beings that did not possess an internal witness to the standard of righteousness inherent within and intrinsic to the holiness of God. There is only one holiness, one righteousness, one goodness and so no image bearer can escape the condemnation of his own sense that a standard of right and wrong must rule all relationships.


I. Romans 2:1-11 – Paul demonstrates that the moral standard according to which God judges is known and begins a transition to a discussion of the judgment and the Law:

A. (1-3) Paul points out that everyone makes moral judgments on other people. Everyone, therefore, has the concept of a moral code implanted in their conscience. When they judge others, they judge themselves, for doubtless, they violate their own moral code. None are excused, therefore, by any apparent ignorance, for the truth is none are ignorant. If we judge others by an internal sense of oughtness, or of what is fitting, we show that a moral code, however skewed and darkened it may be, rules our evaluations concerning life. What will become of us then when God’s judgment “according to truth” is put into play?

B. (4, 5) If we received at any moment the judgment that the moral status of our lives deserved, we would immediately fall under condemnation. Quick judgments happen to many people every day. God’s patience with us, every day without ultimate judgment, is a gift of present mercy-“the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering.” We do not improve in the mean time, however, and are storing up wrath against the day of judgment. We are presumptuous and sinfully unaware of our susceptibility to wrath. At the time God’s wrath is revealed according to his righteous judgment, each who perishes will do so in his own unrighteousness and just susceptibility to the “revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”

C. Verses 6-11 are speaking of judgment purely in terms of works without the redemptive work of Christ in view. Paul also begins his transition from a discussion of the Gentile that has been left to nature and conscience as a means of establishing the standard of righteousness by which he will be judged, to the Jew who has the revelation of law for a moral code by which he will be judged.

  1. (6, 7) Paul hypothesizes a person who continues all his life with an unbroken pursuit of living in the presence of the glory of God. He enjoys and celebrates God for his clear and perfect moral virtue. He desires and yearns for the blessings and the holy environment of the immortal state that transcends all that is in this life. Such a person will receive eternal life. 6, 7
  2. (8) Another kind of deportment is also in view. Lok at the person that seeks self-glory, and self-pleasure, and represses the truth and loves unrighteousness. He will receive divine indignation—“wrath and fury.”
  3. (9) Paul then makes these same points by reversing the order; the punishment for the evil-doer is described as “tribulation and distress” or anguish and it will include both Jew and Greek. He mentions that it is the Jew that is first in judgment (“the Jew first”) and also the Greek. This is the same order we find in verse 1:16 concerning the power of the Gospel. Also, everyone that does “good” will receive the reward: glory and honor and peace. 2:10 Again to the Jew first, and also the Greek. The Jew can achieve this by following perfectly the law revealed; the Greek by following perfectly the law on the heart, for there is no difference and in such a case “there is no partiality with God.”
  • The idea that there is a reward in the perfect keeping of the Law and punishment for breaking it is one of the fundamental premises of Scripture. See Leviticus 18:5 (“which if a man does he shall live by them”) and then Galatians 3:12 (same) and Romans 10:5 (same) for Paul’s application of this. Also, Deuteronomy 27:26 and Galatians 3:10 for the application of punishment for disobedience. Paul is not arguing that it is possible subsequent to the fall for a person to achieve salvation through an unbroken course of absolute obedience, but that the principle “obedience equals life” is operative for all the sons of Adam, not only the Jews. One might obey the Law without the written code, for the written code is a delineation of the law written on the heart at creation as one aspect of the “image of God” described by Paul in Ephesians 4:24 as “true righteousness and holiness.”
  • The “firstness” of the Jew both in opportunity as well as responsibility Paul explains in 3:1,2; 9:1-5; 10:1-4.



II. Romans 2:12-24 – Here Paul shows that whether a person sins against the Law as a revealed external code written for all generations to see or against the law written in the heart, their judgment is still just for it is against divine holiness. Obedience to either also constitutes righteousness and it is to the actual keeper of the law that the declaration of “justified” is given (2:13)

A. 2:12-13 – Impartiality both in condemnation and justification arises from the universality of a standard of righteousness. Those that sin, even without any special revelation of divine law, will perish. Those that sin with a special revelation of law will be judged and condemned under the authority of that special revelation. By the same token, any person that is a doer of the law, by intrinsic intuition of that that is on the heart, or by a whole-personed obedience to the written code will be pronounced righteous. In the absence of full law-keeping, there can be no justification. This verse, 13, has direct relevance to Paul’s argument for imputation in chapters 4 and 5. The right standing of believers before God comes not only on the basis of forgiveness, but also on the basis of a complete righteousness being imputed to us: “doers of the law will be justified.” The death of Christ as a propitiation cleanses us from all sin while his perfect obedience (of which his death is a vital part) bestows the merit of active obedience so that the gift of eternal life comes to us only through Christ.

B. 2:14-16 – Paul argues that the law is absolute, not merely an arbitrary manifestation of isolated esoteric rules. It is arbitrary only in the sense that God wills a thing to be so as a necessary outflow of his intrinsic holiness and sovereign prerogatives. Even apart from special revelation, however, Paul makes it clear that the Gentiles can do “by nature” that which is right. It is written on their heart as a continued witness of the image of God and their conscience will condemn them for their wrong doing in the final judgment when all the rationalizing subterfuges are taken away. For the sake of argument, Paul also mentions that right-doing could also result from the law on the heart so that a Gentile’s conscience might “excuse,” that is, approve, him or her on the day of judgment. Conscience serves not merely as a whip when one does wrong, but as an instructor and encourager when we are faced day by day with options for good or bad, right or wrong, inferior or excellent. The fall has perverted every aspect of human nature that constitutes one’s judgment so that we run roughshod over the conscience and render it ineffectual for instruction in righteousness. As a natural faculty, however, it serves as a guide to the law.

C. 2:17-24 – Here Paul attacks a misperception held by the representative Jew to whom he is speaking. It could be a reflection of Paul’s own thinking prior to conversion [cf. Romans 10:1-4; Philippians 3:4-6;].

  1. The problem is that the Jew has allowed his privileged position to obscure the universal demand for real holiness of heart and practical righteousness. He has come to interpret his having the Law as sufficient in itself to establish him as one that has God’s favor.
  2. The revelation of the Law, so he thinks, has not only set him apart in privilege, but has in itself given him right standing with God. [Paul also argues against this misperception in Galatians 3:15-18] Their close attention to the Law for centuries had made them filled with many details of instruction concerning the Law and its implications for every aspect of daily life. Paul cuts through all of this when he asserts, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.” (2:23)
  3. The Jews saw the Gentiles as “sinners” but not themselves (Galatians 2:15). Instead hey had “the form of knowledge and truth” in the law and were qualified to teach all others in the things that are excellent.
  4. Paul mentions two commandments from the second table, (stealing and adultery) and one from the first table (idolatry) as representative of the whole law. While they taught others this righteousness, did they not see that they themselves were violators. Did they not see as Paul had come to see (Romans 7:7), that their pride and covetousness permeated their entire lives and made them guilty of the whole law (James 2:8-13)?



III. The issue of circumcision as an external mark of differentiation between Jew and Gentile is shown to be a mark that the external revelation has always required an internal love and submission (2:25-29). This was an added advantage to the Jew in that it gave a constant reminder of his covenant duty to obey the law. He had the law, and he had a mark in his flesh, highly symbolic in nature, to prompt him to regard the law rightly. God in his gracious sovereignty had initiated a covenant with this one people. But even with this their corruption perverted his favor.

A. The most pronounced external mark of Jewishness was the circumcision of all male children on the eighth day. This was a mark in their flesh that they were set apart by God and had covenant obligations. The fact, however, that he is a law-transgressor renders the advantage null as far as righteousness is concerned. (2:25)

B. On the other hand, since the purpose of circumcision is to press toward a grasp of the law as a heart-felt love for and obedience to God [dikaiomata, “righteous requirements” of the law], if an uncircumcised person were to do this, his uncircumcision would be no disadvantage at all, but in his uncircumcised state he would be accounted as one that has accomplished all that is contained in the purpose of circumcision. [2:26]

C. Accounted, counted, or imputed, is a math term. One thing equals another. True obedience equals real righteousness and it is only just, and purely logical, to account it so. It is in the same way that faith is accounted as righteousness [4:22, 23, 24]. It is accounted so, because it really is so, not in us, but in the one that is our substitute in this reckoning.

D. The uncircumcised lawkeeper judges the circumcised, law-possessing, law breaker. His understanding of righteousness and his perfect execution of it allows him to see the inconsistency of one that knows the truth but does not keep it. Paul sees an irony in the reversal of roles; instead of the self-righteous Jew judging the Gentile without any moral ground to do so, the uncircumcised law-keeping Gentile judges the Jew with moral ground to do so.


IV. In verses 28, 29 Paul still is dealing with the concept of righteousness according to the law and the relation of the codified and revealed law to the law written on the heart. Verse 29 “in spirit,” in my judgment, is not a reference to regeneration by the Holy Spirit, although it prepares the way for understanding both the necessity of such a work of the Spirit as well as the nature of it. The contrast is that which Paul has emphasized throughout, the written code as opposed to an internal submission to it. The operative phrase is “in spirit, not letter.” The emphasis on circumcision pointed to a spiritual, heart felt obedience (Deuteronomy 10:12-16). Deuteronomy 30:6 shows what the circumcised heart means and also shows that in the fallen condition such is accomplished only by a supernatural work. In Jeremiah 4:4, Judah is commanded to circumcise themselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of their hearts. God threatens punishment to those that are “circumcised merely in the flesh” but not circumcised in heart. Jeremiah 10:25, 26.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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