This Sunday we will be finishing up (Lord willing) Romans 2, and so I thought I would provide a short summary of what we have and will be learning in this wonderful chapter. The apostle has been dealing with persons who would agree with his condemnation of pagans (as expressed in chapter 1), but who have the terrible tendency to excuse themselves on the grounds either (1) of being very moral, that is, people who know higher standards of conduct than those possessed by the heathen; or (2) of being thoroughly religious and therefore of being saved by the possession of the revealed law of God and by participation in the "commands" of Scripture.
Do you know of any people like that today? Of course, you do. You may even be one of them. Here is what the apostle Paul says to us:
1. Knowledge alone, even knowledge of the highest spiritual and moral principles, does not win God’s approval. On the contrary, superior knowledge actually leads to even greater condemnation—if it is not accompanied by adherence to the higher standard. Both the moral pagan and the orthodox Jew were found wanting, not because they did not have a moral code or divine revelation, but because, having that code or revelation, they nevertheless failed to live up to it. We often do “the same things” we condemn in others (vv. 1–3).
2. Membership in a religious society, whether the covenant nation of Israel or the visible church of Christ, does not guarantee that we have obtained God’s favor. It is not that belonging to the visible company of God’s people is unimportant. It is. But salvation is not won by any external associations if God looks not on outward appearances but on the heart. Church members are being saved. But it is not because they are church members! If any of us could perfectly keep the law of God, we would be saved by keeping it. But none of us can. We have all broken it. Therefore, we can be saved only as the result of Christ’s death on the cross and the application of that work to us by the Holy Spirit.
3. The commands, either of the Old Testament or the New Testament periods, save no one. They point to what saves, but they are not the reality themselves.
4. God judges according to truth and performance, and by that standard every human being is condemned. We may not like the concluding part of that sentence, but we can hardly disagree with the rightness and value of the first part. Would it be right for God to judge in any other than the highest and most righteous fashion? Could he judge in any way other than by truth? Could he overlook sin, just because a person is a Jew? Or a church member? Or just because he or she might know better? Obviously, none of these perversions of justice can occur with God, though they are all too common in human systems.
5. If we are to be saved, it must be by the labor of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When David sinned and then confessed his sin in Psalm 51, even though he confessed his sin genuinely and thoroughly he did not suppose that it was the mere fact of his confession that would save him. On the contrary, he looked entirely to God. He prayed: (1) “Cleanse me with hyssop …” (v. 7). Hyssop was used to sprinkle the blood of the animals used in the Jewish sacrificial system. So this was a plea for cleansing by the blood of the atonement. And he added: (2) “Create in me a pure heart” (v. 10). As the next verse makes clear, David understood this to be something that could only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit, which is precisely the point to which Paul comes at the conclusion of the chapter.
In the final sentence of Romans 2, Paul has a pun, which is untranslatable in English but which takes us back to the identification of a true Jew, with which we began. The word Jew comes from the name of Judah, the fourth son of Jacob (or Israel, Gen. 32:28), and the pun is found in the fact that Judah means “praise.” When Leah gave birth to Judah she said, “This time I will praise the Lord,” and the text adds, “So she named him Judah [or ‘praise’]” (Gen. 29:35). Similarly, when Jacob/Israel was dying, he said, using the same pun, “Judah, your brothers will praise you” (Gen. 49:8a).
This is the pun Paul uses at the end of the chapter: “Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” He means, “True Jewishness (Judah) is from God and is spiritual. It does not come from men by outward things like circumcision.”