If COVID-19 has highlighted one thing, it is our ability to spot the wrong in others. We read a newspaper report about crowds on a beach and we notice with disgust that someone has gone to that beach, expecting that they would get to be there and enjoy it for themselves, missing the irony that they are in the same boat as all the other lockdown rule breakers. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we need to recognise that our primary annoyance is with those who have got away with bending or breaking the rules whilst we too continue to seek out ways around the restrictions we consider harsh, unfair or just not relevant to us.
There are a few dangers with this in Christian life. First of all, if I see myself as in someway exempt, either from judgement or from temptation, then it can lead to complacency and carelessness in my own spiritual walk. I believe we have seen some tragic examples of this when Christian leaders have fallen into scandal. At the same time, we can create an appearance of arrogance and judgementalism that will result in the Gospel being unattractive to those we are seeking to minister to.
Thirdly, what we begin to see with this attitude is a legalism and judgementalism towards others which results in division, tribalism and hierarchies. Romans chapter 2:1-11 picks up on this danger.
Legalistic judgement of others removes the excuse of ignorance
V1 The section starts with the word “therefore” what we are about to see is the logical consequence of what Paul has argued in chapter 1. The first chapter has begun by showing that no-one has an excuse. Now, Paul takes the general argument and focuses it in on a specific type of person, namely the person who points the finger of judgement at others forgetting that when they do, they have 4 pointing back at themselves.
The point is that all are sinners and so, when we are able to identify that sin in others, we are highlighting that we are aware of what sin and righteousness are. Therefore we cannot claim to be ignorant when we too fall into sin. Notice that the judge is not simply accused of being a sinner in similar matters and definitely not in lesser matters. Paul’s accusation is that they do exactly the same things as they judge others for.
Presumption on past mercy misses the purpose of mercy and creates false hope
V2-3 One reason that we are excuseless is that we know God is righteous and that he judges. This is what chapter 1 has shown us. The evidence of God’s righteousness is revealed in how he deals with sin, in the “handing over” described in 1:18-32. The challenge then, is that if people think that they would be able to escape God’s judgement, on what basis did they think so. It is unlikely that they presumed they would be able sneak under the radar and that God would somehow miss them. That’s rarely how things work is it? Rather, as we saw with the COVID-19 examples mentioned above, our tendency is to assume that we are somehow special cases, deserving of an exemption or more lenient treatment. We seek to excuse, if not justify ourselves.
So in v 4, Paul suggests that there is a presumption to their attitudes. These people assume that the absence of judgement upon them means that they will not be judged. Notice the hypocrisy and double standards here. They presume upon God’s kindness and mercy towards them but have little patience or kindness for others. One is rather reminded of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven a great debt by the ruler but refused to forgive someone who owed them far less. Paul identifies the root problem as a failure to understand grace. The purpose of God’s patience and mercy is not to leave sin undealt with, not to sweep it under the carpet but to give sinners opportunity and time to come to a place of genuine conviction and repentance.
So now, Paul warns those who judge in this way of the danger they face. Their refusal to repent betrays a hardness of heart and without a softening of heart, without repentance, judgement will come. They should not assume that a lack of consequences for sinful actions in this life is a statement about their eternal destiny. Rather, God will judge the judges (v5).
God’s judgement is just and fair
In v 6-8, sets out too possible outcomes to judgement if we are judged according to our works, or on the basis of our whole life effort. Eternal life is available. Notice to whom it is available:
“ to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality.”
It is available for those who are seeking something patiently. Indeed, we might argue that “glory and honour and immortality” in effect add up to “eternal life.” Who is the reward of eternity available to? It is available to those who seek it through patient good works (well-doing). We are reminded of Christ’s promise “seek and you will find.” (v7)
This contrasts with those who fail to do good, or fail to persevere in their good works. Further, the implication seems to me that there is also in effect a failure to seek after eternal life. The opposite of seeking glory, honour and immortality is to be “self seeking” (v8). Eternal life comes when our focus is outside of ourselves, on glory and honour. This glory is God’s glory. The one who enjoys eternal life is the one who seeks to glorify and enjoy God for ever. Selfishness and self seeking in contrast turns ones attention in on themselves away from God and on the here and now, upon instant gratification, away from the hope of eternity. Those who are self seeking are those who show no interest in truth or righteousness and therefore are disobedient. Their judgement will be wrath, they will receive the due penalty for sin.
In verse 9-11, Paul demonstrates that God is impartial in his judgement (v11). The assumption is, I believe, that those who are judging others and assuming that God will overlook their sin, do so on the basis of ethnic pride. Specifically, it is the belief that being an ethnic Jew makes you part of God’s people and therefore excused from judgement. The Jews were looking for a collective and inclusive vindication of the nation together, those that were the descendants of Abraham. It now becomes clear, that it is the Gentiles that the finger is pointed at.
But Paul insists that “tribulation and distress”, describing the eternal judgement of hell will come to all humanity, regardless of ethnicity as judgement for sin (v9). Meanwhile, people from every race, Jew and Gentile alike can look forward to glory, honour and peace for doing good. Notice by the way that “patiently seeking” is paralleled with doing good (v10).
Application to ourselves
We have to be a little careful about impatience in following Paul’s argument here because we already know the whole story, the whole argument. We know that you cannot be saved by your works, only by grace. So, in our impatience, we might want to rush over this part of the account or to see Paul’s description here of our works being judged as contradicting what he says in Chapters 3-5 or what he says elsewhere in Ephesians 2.
It is important therefore to remember that he is building up an argument. The thrust of the argument so far is that no-one is without excuse before God’s judgement. We cannot use the excuse of ignorance because God has clearly revealed the truth and we have suppressed it. We cannot rely on our ethnic identity because God does not show favouritism and let some of the hook, we are all judged according to our works. It is when we get to chapter 3 that we discover that nor cn we rely on our works for an excuse because nobody has achieved works based righteousness.
However, at this stage I believe it is important to note the importance of righteousness. There is a connection between the righteousness we have received as those justified by faith and the life we live. As Luther said “we are justified by faith alone but that faith is never alone.” It is right to pause and ask “is there evidence on display that I am one who pursues godliness and seeks after those things that go with eternal life.” The clear evidence will be a reduction in selfishness.
Additionally, at this stage, we are reminded that just as there was no place for a division between Jews and Gentiles in the church at Rome, so too, there is no place for division and distinction based on class or race in our situations today. Whilst it would be rare amongst evangelicals to see any hint of a departure from the belief that we are saved by grace, and thus rare to see someone presuming on their own efforts for salvation, or a hereditary faith, I don’t believe those dangers can be far away.
First of all, I think that we can even see in Evangelical churches a drift away from an overt proclamation of the Gospel to those who have grown up in church. Whilst, I believe it is possible to grow up without remembering an exact date and time when we trusted the Lord so that for some it is as though they “always knew that they loved Jesus” there is a problem if that love of Jesus is not grounded in the fact that he is their saviour who graciously forgive their sin. Testimonies from church youngsters that talk about them finding identity, peace friendship with Jesus without a grasp of sin and the need for forgiveness should be cause for concern and when talking about baptism may suggest a need to pause and talk more bout the Gospel.
Secondly, I think we have seen examples of pride including intellectual and doctrinal pride as well as class pride (both from working and middle class) that whilst falling short of a presumption to salvation on that basis do suggest that we rely on those things a little too heavily for identity and status. Romans 2 cuts away at such hubris.
Our churches should be made up of people who hold equally in common a shared goal, to pursue righteousness and seek after the things that accompany eternal life together. When this is at the heart of all we do, then it becomes the basis for true unity in Christ.
 See John Calvin, Romans and Thessalonians, 44. Calvin notes that pursuit of those three things is not tp pursue something other than God but those are the things that accompany his kingdom. See also Schreiner, Romans, 113 where he agrees that “glory, honour and incorruptibility” equal eternal life.