2:1-16 – The Just Judgment of God
[2:1-11]—Paul now turns to challenging judgmentalism. In lacking self-awareness, the judger judges without realizing one’s own guilt, the height of hypocrisy and false consciousness.
But why does Paul bring his up here? What are “the very same things” he has in mind that “you” do here?
When Paul says, “whoever you are” (2:1), that may indicate that he doesn’t have anyone in particular in mind (i.e., the “Jew”) so much as the general phenomena of people pointing fingers without realizing or admitting or doing anything about their own failings. Maybe we could link his concerns here with Jesus’ comments about the “unforgivable sin” – which likely is the denial of the need for God’s mercy.
Paul’s concerns so far center on idolatry and the underlying need to be free from the bondage idolatry fosters. If one is pointing fingers at other idolaters while denying one’s own tendency to worship idols, one will never find such freedom. So it would seem that “the very same things” are various forms of idolatry. Remember Paul’s own violence as a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, acts that stemmed from Paul’s substitution of boundary markers for God.
In 2:2, the NRSV adds “you say” for clarification. This addition interprets the “we know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth” as the words of the judgers of 2:1. This interpretation sees the judgers as thinking that in condemning the idolatry of 1:18-32 they have God on their side (again, echoing Paul’s own experience as a judger).
In 2:2, the term “truth” comes up again. Perhaps “truth” here should be seen also as an indication of the suppression of the “truth” in 1:18 and “the truth” that is exchanged for a lie in 1:25. If so, we can also see that this sarcastic critique in 2:2 links the judgers with those who worship the creation rather than the creator in defiance of God’s revelation in the things God has made (1:20), those who worship and serve the creature rather than creator (1:25), and those who defy God’s just judgment and “applaud” injustice and idolatry (1:32).
Again, if we perceive some autobiography here (Paul as judger), we can see that Paul’s violence in the name of the “truth” (but actually a lie, the worship of the law rather than of the law-giver – inverting the foundational dynamic of mercy leading to God’s acceptance) is just as bad as the Romans’ idolatry. In fact, the judgers’ idolatry is simply another form of imperialism.
Paul insists that all idolaters (those who idolize lust, those who idolize empire, and those who idolize law) will equally be subject to God’s judgment (2:3). Again, Paul’s “whoever you are” (2:1 and 2:3) seems to indicate a general indictment. This type of un-self-aware judging and idolatry seems universal.
Might we understand “God’s judgment” here in line with the earlier allusion to “wrath” (1:18), and pointing more to the outworking of the processes of life than direct acts from God. That would fit with the principle that idolaters become like that which they trust in. If the problem with the judgers is their idolatry, this would make sense.
Verse four articulates an understanding very similar to that seen in the Bible’s earlier salvation story. The basic reality of God, God’s disposition, may be characterized as rich in “kindness [is chrëstotëtos the Greek equivalent of chesed? – if so, we have an echo of OT covenant loyalty and “loving kindness/mercy”] and forebearance and patience” (language right out of Hosea and 2 Isaiah). Paul summarizes the basic dynamic of salvation: “God’s kindness is meant to lead to repentance” (2:4). It is because of God’s mercy coming first and unearned that repentance/turning (metanoia) is possible.
The ideas of 2:4 are the opposite of the ideas underlying all forms of idolatry. Idolatry, in essence, is an attempt to gain favors from the “god”: through manipulation and “good works” founded on fear of the “god’s” ill disposition and the scarcity of the “god’s” favor. The antidote to idolatry is recognition of God’s unconditional and abundant mercy that is accessed only by trust.
The fruits of idolatry are violence and injustice. The fruits of trust in the true God are generosity, shalom, and restorative justice.
The flip-side of kindness/turning/wholeness/forgiveness is “wrath” (2:5). It is important to read 2:5 in light of what has come before in Rom 1–2. The “hard and impenitent heart” (in the immediate context, this phrase refers to the judgers, though surely it would also apply to the idolaters of 1:18-32) describes those who suppress the truth, who reduce love to lust, who reduce law to legalism, who reduce community to exclusivism, who live under the sway of the Powers (including those attached to the Law – cf. Galatians), and who end up with blinded eyes and closed minds. That is, these are all who act unjustly and use violence – whether in the name of Empire, Temple, or Law (or anything else that is used to justify violence).
The “storing up wrath” (2:5) may be seen most obviously simply in terms of the dynamics of self-delusion and cold-heartedness. As we trust in things we become more and more thing-like (in this sense, “storing up” more “wrath”).
We have here another use of apokalyseos. The “revelation” of the “day of wrath” may be understood in terms of the revelation of the true path to God through the witness of Jesus. This revelation illumines the death of the various idolatries and, tragically, likely only reinforces the fears and false worship of all the various types of idolaters.
“God’s righteous judgment” (dikaiokrisias tou theou, 2:5) is the same as “God’s decree” (dikaiöma tou theou, 1:32 NRSV). That makes clear the sense that the injustices of 1:29-31 and the judging of 2:1-2 are the same kind of thing, both blinding people to God’s authentic justice. The sinful acts of 1:29-31 and judgmentalism in response to those acts both violate relationships. Neither foster the restoration of relationships God’s justice seeks.
“God will repay according to each one’s deeds” (2:7 NRSV). The word for “will repay” could also be translated “will render” (apodösei), with a connection that is a bit less retributive. The idea could simply be that God lets us become like that that we worship, and our deeds/works are our truest indicators of what our hierarchy of values actually is.
This dynamic is spelled out in 2:7-8. Those who “patiently do good” (notice the focus on deeds/works) receive “eternal life.” The “doing good” intrinsically carries with it “glory and honor and immortality” (2:7).
The term “eternal life” (zöën aiönion) needs to be unpacked. The word aiönion may have the connotation of “life in the eschaton”/”age of the end,” which may actually have in mind living in the present as people whose citizenship is in God’s realm right now in contrast to being at home in the realm of the Domination System. So “eternal life” might not so much be about rewards in “heaven” as much as the dynamic whereby in our faithfulness we become ever more transformed people in this life.
[We also need to unpack “immortality” – aphtharsian, “incorruptibility.”]
Paul refers to those who are self-seeking (and, hence, not self-aware; rendered shallow and thick-headed) “and who obey not the truth” (note the return of key terms “obey” and “truth” – in contrast with “the obedience of faithfulness,” 1:5, that leads to “transformed minds,” 12:1-2, and a clear awareness of truth). The self-seekers obey injustice (“wickedness” NRSV). The “dik” motif returns. It is not “wickedness” as in personal sin or breaking rules with impunity. It is injustice as in violating relationships and causing harm (something both idolaters and judgers do). Paul includes under the rubric of “injustice” the sins of “morally upright” judgers and the oppressive Empire elite.
It is important to keep in mind that Paul equates the injustices of the 1:18-32 idolaters with the injustices of the judgers. The violence of boundary-marking is equally contrary to God’s will with the imperial violence and debauchery of the Empire. Both corrupt the hearts and morals of the unjust ones and lead to moral and spiritual (self-determined) death wherein the idolater becomes conformed to the idol.
In reducing love to lust and community to exclusivism, people reduce themselves to their idols. Such people experience God’s justice as “wrath” and God’s initiative of mercy as “fury” (2:8). Note here, too, that both “wrath” and “fury” are not linked directly with God. The “wrath” and “fury,” we could say, are in the minds of the idolaters (but nonetheless real and devastating).
Verses nine and ten reiterate the outworking of the dynamics of worship. Those who “do evil” (note again the emphasis on acts) will, in a sense, experience in their own being what they are causing others to experience by their unjust and evil deeds – “anguish and distress.”
This dynamic is not so much an iron law determining God’s intervening direct action as it is a description of the dynamics of life. You damage yourself when you hurt others and thereby cannot ultimately escape the consequences. Remember again both the damage of the unjust deeds of 1:29-31 and the unjust deeds of the judgers of 2:1-2 (cf. Paul’s own violence).
Those who “do good” (2:10) also experience in their own being what they help others experience by their just and good deeds – “glory and honor and peace” [cf. here Robert Jewett on “glory and honor”]. Again, this describes the dynamics of life – “if you love love, love loves you too” (Bruce Cockburn).
Now, why does Paul say, “the Jew first and also the Greek – for God shows no partiality” (2:10-11)? Off the top, I see this as underscoring the notion that the description of the dynamics of idolatry, 1:18–2:10, applies to everyone. While God’s strategy involved choosing Abraham and Israel as the particular channel for God’s restorative justice finding concrete expression, God’s purpose was to bless all the families of the earth. The dynamics of blessing within Israel apply to everyone – the dynamics of “cursing” likewise.
Paul is not making an essentialist distinction between Gentiles (1:18-32) and Jews (2:1-10) – note he does not explicitly identify the former as Gentiles or the latter as Jews, but is pointing to dynamics within both populations that illumine the actual distinction that matters: trust/doing good/worshiping God/restorative justice vs. self-will/doing evil/worshiping idols/injustice. And this distinction cuts right through both populations with people within each population on both sides of the divide.
That “God shows no partiality,” in the context of the Roman church, emphasizes that Jews can indeed be idolaters and that Gentiles can indeed be just – and, of course, vice versa. God’s mercy is for all – and all who trust idols will suffer the consequences.
[2:12-16]—Verse 12 reiterates this point about God’s impartiality. The key is not one’s ethnic identity or formal relationship to Torah, but whether one practices the obedience of faith or not (1:5), or whether one responds with just living to God’s self-revelation “through the things he has made” or not (1:20).
A big issue in v.12 is what Paul means by “sin” and by “perish.” I suspect the “sin” should be defined by our earlier discussion of idolatry and its consequences. The basic dynamic is stated back in 1:21. Living without trust and gratitude, becoming futile in thinking and darkened in mind, with the consequence of injustice and turning into lifeless things.
The point here – reiterating the point make in 2:1-2 – is that there is no meaningful difference between the sins of the idolaters and of the judgers. Being “judged by the law” here (2:12b) seems equivalent to “perishing” (2:12a). “Sinning under the law” seems basically to mean making an idol of some rule or other and using it to underwrite injustice (as with Paul himself and the “judaizers” of Galatians and Peter, et al, as alluded to in Galatians).
The consequence of “living in sin” (= being enslaved by idols with the consequent life of injustice) is separation from God. In context, this consequence follows from the nature of reality, not from the direct, punishing intervention of God.
2:13 seems like a crucial soteriological verse: “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous (just), but the doers of the law who will be justified.” But what does this verse mean?
“Hearers of the law” may be an allusion to ethnic Jews. I tend to see it much more broadly (without denying that Paul does have in mind “Jew first, then Gentile”). Paul goes on in this paragraph to refer to the Gentile reality; “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:15).
So, ultimately the “hearers of the law” are everyone, the point being that “hearing” or being exposed to or having “head knowledge” of the basic expectations of God for human beings does not make one “just” (i.e., whole, in harmony with God, “saved”). We could extrapolate from this and say that membership in a religious community/participation in religious rituals/right belief/ethnic identity – none of these in themselves make a person whole. Nor, of course, does wealth or power.
“Doers of the law will be justified.” Based on what we have seen so far in Romans, which is mostly a portrayal of injustice, we must read between the lines a little to get a sense of what it means to be a “doer of the law.”
In a nutshell, being a “doer of the law” would seem to involve the opposite of what Paul describes as the main characteristics of the idolaters and the judgers. This may include: propagating the truth, honoring God as God, living in gratitude, honoring their bodies, worshiping the Creator, being filled with justice and shalom, generous and kind, self-aware, respectful rather than judgmental, seeking to heal brokenness rather than responding to it in self-righteous ways.
A key issue is the term “shall be justified” (dikaiöthësontai). What is the positive consequence of “doing the law”? In light of the biblical meaning of justice (mishpat, sedeqah, dikaiosunë), we should think of “justify” as something like “made whole,” “brought into whole relationship,” “healed,” “transformed.”
“Justify” is not about “being declared acceptable to God” or “being treated as innocent” or “freed from the punishing anger of God.” The point is not being admitted into a future life in heaven despite being a sinner. The context in Romans 1–2 has to do with living here and now in harmonious relationship with God and other people as whole people freed from the soul-destroying bondage of idolatry.
In 2:13, “just in God’s sight” = “justified.” Both have to do with “justice” in the sense of restored relationships/wholeness that enable a person to live. In a sense, then, “doing the law” is both the cause and the effect of wholeness. It all follows from God’s mercy that precedes anything we do.
We do not “do the law” in order to gain God’s favor. We “do the law” as a result of God’s favor. But we do need to live as free people. We “do the law” in order to live in harmony with God, which is how we gain the power to break free from and overcome the damage caused by idolatry/trusting in the Powers and to bring healing to creation (Rom 8 ) and bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12; Rev 21-22).
This verse (2:13) is also important in making clear how central the law is to Paul’s theology in a positive sense. “Doing the law” is the means to salvation (echoing Jesus’ response to the question about how to gain eternal life in Luke 10:25-28) – even as, as we will see, “the law” is also a major problem and is linked with the Jewish expression of idolatry.
This conundrum will need to be sorted out as we go along. Here I will anticipate and suggest that the meaning of “law” in the sense of “doing the law” = “being justified” is defined in 13:8-10 (echoing Jesus) as the law of love (the true meaning of Torah as understood by Moses and the prophets – cf. Rom 3:21c where the revelation of the justice of God through Jesus “is attested by the law and the prophets”). That is, the law/Torah points to love, guides toward love, enables love. The law serves love (Jesus: the Sabbath is made for humans…).
“Law” in the sense of “works of the law” has to do with law as a Power or idol, an end in itself that is twisted to serve injustice and violence, boundary lines and judgmentalism and self-righteousness, law as legalism, in which the law is reduced to oppressive rules that become idols in parallel ways to how love is reduced to lust in Rom 1:18-32.
In 2:14, Paul affirms that Gentiles do “do the law” even though they are ignorant of Torah/Moses. Paul says Gentiles do the law “instinctively” (NRSV). This word (physei) could be translated as “by nature” which links back to 1:18-32 and the sense of what is “natural” there (and, “against nature”). That “justice” is natural, living in gratitude is natural. God’s truth is seen in what’s made. And it is unnatural to worship the creature, to practice injustice, to reduce love to lust, to reduce Torah to rules.
There seems to be no reason not to accept that Paul truly means that some Gentiles are “justified” and “do the law.” That is, some Gentiles (ignorant of the written Torah though they be) are “saved,” living in harmony with God – even though they do not “possess” Torah.
We saw that Paul means to cut through the Jewish/Gentile divide in seeing widespread idolatry and injustice in both populations. He is continuing that point here from the positive side. Just as both Jews and Gentiles succumb to idolatry and injustice, so also both do in reality also have people who are just, who do “do the law.”
The faithfulness or justness or authentic obedience of Gentiles who do not know Torah shows that “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:15). What does the law require? Look at what we saw above as what it meant to “do the law”: in a nutshell, trust God, live in gratitude, and do justice.
We may be able to see here a hint of a sense that living in gratitude and doing justice in the absence of direct knowledge of Torah could imply a sense of genuinely trusting God even while not knowing “God’s name” or that God is in fact the God of Israel, Yahweh. This sense would imply that the human conscience (2:15) can supply a clear sense of the true God (we maybe could link this sense of “conscience” with interpreting the breath of life in Genesis two as being a manifestation of the Holy Spirit – cf. also the Quaker “divine light” in each human). Such a view would lead to optimism about human beings connecting across cultures and sharing a common sense of justice – an optimism based on at least some cases of such a connection actually happening.
What does Paul mean by: “their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them” on the day of judgment (2:15-16)? My guess right now in light of what we have just seen is that Paul has in mind Gentiles being either justified (“thoughts…excuse them”) or condemned (“thoughts…accuse”) based on their deeds.
Either justification or condemnation is possible – for each person it will be one or the other. The key is whether people (all people, Jews and Gentiles) are hearers only (“hearing” their conscience’s sense of justice but not acting on it) or also doers of the law (following their conscience and acting faithfully to its directives toward gratitude and justice). The standards are the same for everyone. God has revealed “what can be known about God” (1:19) to all. So we have the potential to be either idolaters/judgers or just people/doers of the law/justified.
When “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all” (2:16), our choices for one or the other fate will be brought to the surface. This will be the final revelation. Toward which pole have we been moving – justice or injustice, trust in God or trust in idols? Our ethnicity or religious identification will not be what determines our fate. Rather, our “secret thoughts” (that is, our object of deepest trust – either God or idols, either love or injustice) will determine our fate.
2:17-29 – The Jews and the Law
[2:17-24]—It seems helpful to assume that in this paragraph Paul has himself (before he met Jesus) in mind as one who saw himself as “a guide to the blind” (he had this attitude powerfully enough that he zealously and “violently persecuted the church,” Gal 1:13-14; cf. also Acts 8:1). If Paul is our model, we may see the problem being a misguided sense of what it means to serve God and what the purpose of the law is.
By “rely on the law,” Paul seems to have in mind using the law to buttress one’s basis for boasting about one’s relationship with God (2:17), for knowing for certain God’s will (2:18), for being sure one is a guide to the blind (2:19), for possessing the truth (2:20) [note the recurrence of the issue of “truth”], for teaching others (2:21). The problem (repeating the critique from 2:3) is that those who use the law in this way are hypocrites. “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (2:23).
It is inevitable that if you make the law an idol and reduce it to a list of rules (leaving out its core call to restorative justice and love), you will end up violating not only the spirit but also the letter of the law.
Paul’s allusion to Ezekiel 36:21 (Rom 2:24: “As it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” Ez 36:21: “I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came”) harkens back to the prophets’ critique of how many in ancient Israel violated the directives of Torah.
“When the house of Israel lived on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds….So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood they had shed upon the land, and for the idols with which they had defiled it” (Ez 36:17-18). Idolatry plus injustice plus violence equals judgment.
The allusion to Ezekiel and the prophets implies a link between the idolatry of the idolaters/lusters (Rom 1:18-32, where we see the connection among idolatry, injustice, and violence) and the idolatry of the judgers. Judgers like Paul himself had, in the name of the law, practiced injustice and violence (thereby in a genuine sense making the law into an idol). As Paul is clearly inferring, such a use of the law is a cause for Gentiles blaspheming the name of God.
Because of the consequences of law-idolatry, which causes people totally to misunderstand God and God’s true law (cf. Hans Küng’s discussion of “atheism” in the context of 19th century European “Christianity”), it is probably even worse than pagan idolatry. It is not that law-idolatry is necessarily more harmful in its immediate overt effects so much as that it blinds people to the nature of the true God who is indeed the God of Israel and is revealed in Torah – but is not the god of the law-idolaters.
The problem with “breaking the law” here (2:23) is not that the law-idolaters are not perfectly obedient (God never asked the Hebrews and Jesus never asked his followers to be perfectly obedient to every element of Torah – such perfection is not what “doing the law” meant). The problem is misconstruing altogether what keeping the law entailed.
The law-idolaters had not lived in gratitude and embodied restorative justice and generosity. They has not blessed all the families of the earth by following the law in ways that clearly established Israel as a counter-culture to Empire embodying community life in utter contradistinction to the ways of Empire. Instead, the law had become a boundary marker, an external ritual, a tool for people in power to serve their own interests, a tool for violence against the vulnerable and against those who did witness to God’s generosity and restorative justice – “go to Bethel and sin” (Amos), indeed (cf. again Paul’s own story).
The law had become a tool for boasting, self-satisfaction, exclusiveness, and domination. The law had become the exact opposite of God’s intended revelation through Moses. This problem goes back to the very beginning of the story – the history of the Hebrew people has been a history of the conflict between different readings of the law (as has, in effect, been the history of Christianity from the beginning).
Paul here adds nothing to the prophets’ critique beginning with Amos in the 8th century BCE. He is defending Torah and using its original intent to challenge present expressions in the exact same way the prophets and Jesus had. So, radical as his application might have been, in a very profound sense Paul was a Torah conservative.
[2:25-29]— In this paragraph, Paul uses circumcision to illustrate the relationship between Torah and faithful living. When he says “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law” (2:25), he is stating that being a member of the covenant people Israel is indeed of value; nothing he goes on to say should be seen as negating that point.
For “obey the law” we should keep in mind how Paul has presented obedience so far. He surely has in mind living with justice and generosity in response to God’s gift of salvation/liberation. This was the basic dynamic with the initial giving of Torah to the Hebrew people newly liberated from slavery in Egypt (see Ex 20). So, Paul is saying that being part of Israel is great when it works the way God intended it to work – liberation followed by faithfulness for the sake of mediating God’s mercy to the world. Being part of Israel is great for this because it was to Israel that God spelled out how God’s healing strategy is supposed to work and because being part of Israel is a calling to be God’s agents for the work of blessing all the families of the earth. And, as we will see in chapters 9–11, God has not rescinded this calling.
However, “to whom much is given, much is expected” (Lk 12:48). “If you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25). Since the Hebrews were never expected perfectly to follow every single element of the law (from the start there were provisions made for when they failed), Paul most likely has in mind here not simply breaking a rule or two. Rather, he refers to a pattern of life that contracts the core concerns of Torah – directly echoing the critiques of the prophets.
When those charged with witnessing to God’s love and justice for the benefit of all the families of the earth are instead witnessing to violence, greed, and injustice, it is as if they are not part of God’s covenant people at all. Their external symbols of Jewishness (e.g., circumcision in this case; typically these also include kosher eating, ceremonial purity, et al) have no bearing on their actual identity as the people of God. In fact, according to prophets such as Amos, the ritualistic practices of “law-keeping” were sinful when it was accompanied by injustice.
The other side of the coin that Paul emphasizes here is that not only do “people of the law” actually violate it and reveal themselves to actually be “uncircumcision” (outside the true people of God), there are those who are not “people of the law” in a formal sense who do keep the law.
There is no reason not to think Paul has actual people in mind her. He is not just making a hypothetical, rhetorical case. As noted above, his division between people who genuinely are obedient to God cuts right down the middle of both populations – those who are physically circumcised (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles). What determines whether one is considered part of God’s genuine community is obedience to the law of love – or not.
In fact, some who are “uncircumcised” do indeed “keep the requirements of the law” (2:26). If this is so, we have even more support for the notion that “the requirements of the law” boil down to living with gratitude, generosity, and justice. Those who are “uncircumcised” do not know the detailed rules linked with Torah (such as circumcision!). However, they nonetheless “keep the requirements.” We must note, too, that Paul is saying this intending to endorse the truthfulness of Torah – it’s just that the core message is love and justice, not detailed regulations (precisely echoing the prophets and Jesus).
Paul reiterates (implicitly) that it is better to have “the written code and circumcision” (2:27) because these clearly do guide the person to love and justice – and provide the most profound motivation for practicing the law in this sense, the revealed mercies of God. However, when those with this advantage nonetheless practice injustice, they are “condemned” by the contrasting faithfulness of people who have not been given the blessings of Torah.
Paul summarizes his argument here in verses 28-29 by asserting that one’s identity as a true Jew (one who has a living relationship with Yahweh) is one whose heart is circumcised. True circumcision is not “something external and physical” (which is not to say that physical circumcision is not valid, only that it is but a sign of the true circumcision – and that the true circumcision does not require the physical symbol to be valid).
“Real circumcision is a matter of the heart” (2:29) in the sense that one’s circumcision is based on one’s genuine commitment to God’s love and justice that invariably then finds expression in ones actions. Paul in no way is hinting that what matters is our “heart,” not our actions. Rather, he is saying that our hearts are our basic identity as manifested in thought and deed, belief and practice. However, the deeds that matter are deeds of love and justice, not deeds of ritual and religiosity.
When Paul writes “such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (2:29), he echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (“beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven,” Mt 6:1, followed by examples). He likely has in mind the problem of the centering faith on external practices that too easily simply serve to “look faithful to others” rather than genuinely to embody the core concerns of Torah (cf. again Jesus’ teaching in Matthew concerning the contrast between focusing on legalistic minutia at the expense of “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” 23:23).