The Farce of Spiritual Privilege
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 2:1–11
(Read Text) What’s your first impression of this text? It’s direct and confrontational, isn’t it? You may even say it’s scary. So, why is Paul so negative? To answer this question, we must step back and remember the big picture of Paul’s argument.
Specifically, Romans 1:18–4:25 is the first major section of Romans, and it defines the “Heart of the Gospel.” Paul wants to prove that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And he details this incredibly good news in the second half of the section (3:21–4:25). The end of chapter 3 is especially awesome.
But the only way people will appreciate the good news is if first realize they are hopeless to save themselves. So, Paul must prove the bad news—he has to get people lost—before they will appreciate the good news that there is only salvation in Christ.
Paul begins to build his case in 1:18–32 by giving a broad perspective on Gentile sins. We saw that God has revealed himself to all people in creation. But they refuse to worship the true God. In response God lets them spiral into sin and destruction.
It's a sobering section, but the primary point is not controversial. Most pagans and secularists don’t believe they are right with God or deserving of his favor. They know they are disobeying God’s will and deserve his judgment.
But moral, religious people have a much harder time believing they deserve judgment or need salvation. So, if Paul is going to prove that the only hope anyone has of being right with God is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, he also must prove that the religious person with the family heritage, the moral resume, and all the good works also needs salvation.
That’s where Paul turns his attention in 2:1–3:20. He makes some strong statements, but they must be said because the only way people will ever fully rest in the mercy of God is if they first come to the end of themselves.
So, our text for today is especially important for anyone who believes he can be good enough to earn a relationship with God. It also provides a lot of practical help for Christians as we seek to share the gospel with religious people who assume that God is surely pleased with them. We all know those can be some tricky conversations. That said, vv. 1–2 begin the passage by presenting…
I. The Problem (vv. 1–2)
I should mention at the outset that Paul is primarily dealing with the fact that…
The Jews condemned the Gentiles. Verse 1 simply addresses, “everyone of you who passes judgment,” but v. 17 explicitly states that Paul is addressing Jews (read), and Romans 2–3 constantly assume that Paul is speaking to people who know the Law of Moses and try to live by it.
So, imagine Paul having a conversation with an elite Jew who has all the human credentials of spirituality. He grew up in the right family, he has done all the right deeds, and he looks the part of a truly religious man.
And this guy knows it. He thinks he is spiritual, and he is sure that God accepts him. Therefore, he “passes judgment” on the Gentiles of chapter 1. You can imagine him listening in as Paul brings the fire in chapter 1. He’s nodding his head in agreement with everything Paul says and saying, “Amen” to it all.
But his attitude changes when Paul turns his crosshairs toward this man and his fellow Jews. Specifically, Paul asserts…
The Jews committed the same sins. It’s worth emphasizing that Paul doesn’t condemn the Jew for recognizing and condemning the sins of pagans. Our culture likes to say that any judgment of others is inherently evil.
But the Bible never says it is wrong to condemn genuine evil; instead, Paul condemns this Jew for “practice(ing) the same things.” So, Paul condemns the Jew for being a hypocrite. He puts on a religious show and condemns the sins of others, but he commits the same sins in the dark.
Maybe you aren’t sure you believe Paul. “Yeah, nobody’s perfect, but the Jews were surely more righteous than the pagans around them, right? And surely my religious, clean-cut neighbors are more righteous than those other people on my street. How can Paul say he “practice(s) the same things”?
In some respects, you may be right. Your religious neighbor may be more righteous than some other people. But when you stand before God someday, he won’t ask if you were more righteous than the scumbag next door. He’s going to ask if you were as righteous as God is. God’s righteousness will be the standard.
And when you compare yourself to God, and even to the list of sins in 1:29–31, you quickly find that you don’t measure up. Afterall, how many people could truly claim that they are never greedy? How about “envy, strife, (and) deceit”? Are you ever a gossip, or a slanderer? Are you ever arrogant or boastful? Have you ever disobeyed your parents?
We want to believe we are such good people, but an honest comparison of my character to the genuine heart righteousness that God demands clearly demonstrates that I am not righteous like God is. We all are guilty of the same basic sins even if we don’t go as far as some others.
Maybe you don’t see yourself as a religious elite, but you’ve always thought of yourself as a good person who deserves a relationship with God. I’d encourage you to read through the list in 1:29–31 and put a check mark by the ones you have committed. You will quickly find that you are more of a sinner than you want to believe. You need grace. You need salvation. This is because…
God will judge these sins (v. 2). “Such things” are the sins of 1:29–31. So, if you are guilty of any of those sins, “the judgment of God rightly falls” upon you. And vv. 8–9 will say that this judgment will be very severe.
So, Paul goes right after his Jewish opponent and anyone else who thinks he is good enough to earn a relationship with God. Even the most religious people are still sinners who break God’s law and deserve God’s judgment. Every person has a sin problem. But that’s not our only problem. Verses 3–5 confront the delusion that God privileges certain people.
II. The Delusion (vv. 3–5)
Paul’s imaginary Jewish opponent is really under two delusions. We just saw in vv. 1–2 that his first delusion is that he is righteous. And v. 3 mentions a second common delusion among the Jews.
They generally believed that they were more righteous than the Gentiles. But even if they were guilty, they didn’t have to worry about God’s judgment because they thought God would judge them more lightly because of their Jewish ancestry.
In fact, the Apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon states, “For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power; but we will not sin, because we know that we are accounted as yours.” So, a common assumption among the Jews of Paul’s day was that they would be saved by their Jewishness.
That sounds like many religious people in our day. You don’t see it as much here as you do in the Midwest or the Bible Belt, but many people are very proud of their family heritage in a particular church. They’re good Christian people because their family has been a part of a church for decades. They are sure God accepts them. What do you say to these people? Paul responds with 3 important clarifications.
God doesn’t play favorites (v. 3). The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is “no.” God doesn’t play favorites. In fact, this is the main point of the next section (vv. 6, 11).
Maybe someone here has always made a similar assumption. You think that you have an “in” with God because of your family heritage, your social status, or some other reason you’ve created in your mind. I’ve heard people say things like, “Me and God have our thing.” But that “thing” is not based in Scripture but some imaginary friendship, which they think gains them favoritism with God.
But our text is clear. God does not play favorites. He will judge all people including you fairly based on his own righteous standard. Then notice that v. 4 makes a 2nd important clarification.
God doesn’t extend mercy flippantly (v. 4). I was fascinated by this verse this week because it confronts an important false assumption that I had never thought about seriously.
Specifically, Paul’s Jewish opponent could site many examples of God’s “kindness and tolerance and patience.” God had given Israel the Law and many significant promises. When Paul wrote, they had a magnificent temple and decent security. They thought, “Surely, all of these blessings must mean that God is pleased with us and accepts us.”
Many people today make the same assumption based on the good things God has given them. But Jesus said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24–25).
Why is that? One reason is they assume their wealth is a sign of God’s favor. They think they don’t need anything, and “God must surely be pleased with me if he has given me so much.”
But Paul says they have completely misinterpreted God’s “kindness and tolerance and patience.” They are not a stamp of God’s approval; instead, they are a stamp of God’s goodness which is intended to drive them to the goodness of God and to give them opportunity to do so.
This is a useful point for sharing the gospel with someone who is too secure in his bank account or other earthly blessings. You can say to this person, “Look at all that God has given you. God says in this verse that he has given all of this to you so that you will know he is good, and he says that he is giving you time and good health, not so that you can chase your ambitions but so that you have opportunity to repent.”
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). “Please do not misinterpret blessings God has given you. They are intended to lead you to repentance, so please be saved today.”
Maybe this is what you need to hear. You’ve used God’s blessings to justify spiritual apathy. Please understand that God’s kindness and blessings are not a symbol of his acceptance but an opportunity and invitation to repent. Please respond to God’s kindness today. Then v. 5 makes a 3rd
God doesn’t forget (v. 5). This verse offers a startling contrast to v. 4. Paul’s Jewish opponent he feels secure in God’s patience, and he thinks everything is great between him and God.
But Jesus warned there will be many surprised people at the final judgment. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21–23).
They will think that they have been storing up treasures in heaven, but in a tragic twist they failed to see that they were instead “storing up wrath and…the righteous judgment of God.”
I hope that no one here is under the same delusion. Maybe you’ve grown up in a Christian home or you’ve always just thought of yourself as a Christian and a good person. You’ve never really worried about the judgment of God because you’ve experiences so much of his kindness.
But God says you are wrong. God doesn’t play favorites with people who grow up in Christian homes or who call themselves Christians. He judges everyone equally. Please respond to his kindness by admitting your sin and your desperate need of salvation.
And please do so today because every day you wait, you store up wrath. God’s kindness and patience will not last forever, and you are not guaranteed another day to respond. This is so important because vv. 6–11 proceed to warn us about the judgment that is coming.
III. The Judgment (vv. 6–11)
It’s helpful for understanding this section to recognize that it is arranged in what is often called a chiasm. You can see it visualized on the screen. I’d like to work from the outside in. Verses 6 and 11 teach that…
God’s judgment is just (vv. 6, 11). This is the main point of the entire passage. So many people want to believe that God won’t really hold them accountable for everything they have done. “Surely God will show me a little grace and wink at some of my sins.” But that’s not what God says (v. 6). God will exact perfect justice. Every good deed and every evil deed will be perfectly taken into account.
As well, so many people think they have some key to getting a little favoritism from God. It could be anything from family heritage, to how they’ve suffered, to being a red-blooded American. But what does God say (v. 11)?
Everyone will be judged by same standard—the perfect righteousness of God. This includes you and everyone else. Then the middle two sections get more specific about the outcomes of this judgment. Paul emphasizes that there are only two ways to live which will necessarily end in one of two outcomes. First, vv. 7, 10 say…
God will reward the righteous (vv. 7, 10). These verses raise some interesting questions because Paul will later argue vehemently that we are saved grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. For example, notice Paul’s conclusion in 3:28, 4:16a.
Both verses are clear that our works cannot earn us a place in heaven. We are saved solely by faith in the grace Jesus provided on the cross.
But if this is true, what does Paul mean in 2:7, 10 because it sure sounds like Paul is saying good works can earn us a place in heaven. We know that Paul is not contradicting himself, and he is not confused. He wrote under the inspiration of God, and he was too smart for such big contradiction in such a short space.
Some people have argued that Paul is presenting a hypothetical possibility. If someone could live a perfect life, they theoretically would earn eternal life. But there’s no indication in the text that Paul is speaking hypothetically.
So, the best view is that Paul is describing the good works that necessarily flow from genuine conversion. They don’t earn us salvation, but they are a necessary proof of genuine conversion. Because of that, the Bible frequently ties our entrance into heaven to these works.
For example, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). The point is not that doing God’s will makes you a Christian but that a Christian will do God’s will. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). The connection is so essential that Jesus uses it to contrast those who will be in heaven and those who won’t.
Paul does the same thing in vv. 7, 10. Genuine Christians still sin, but they will also produce genuine fruits of repentance and of the Spirit’s indwelling power. Verse 7 says, they “persevere in doing good (and) seek glory and honor and immortality.” Genuine faith perseveres; it lasts. And it is not focused on temporal pleasures but on eternal glory and honor.
And that’s exactly what they will receive. Verse 10 says God will give “glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good.” Genuine believers will be welcomed into the Lord’s presence, and they will live forever in the fullness of his goodness, kindness, and blessing.
I hope you will be there. I hope you are pursuing genuine godliness because you know you are secure in Christ and your hope is in heaven, not in this world. It’s wonderful to have this assurance and hope. This is primarily because heaven will be so wonderful but also because…
God will condemn the unrighteous (vv. 8–9). No one wants to believe that these verses describe them. But the truth is that “selfish ambition” describes most people, even religious people. Their good works are driven by a desire to impress and to do something great, not to sincerely honor the Lord and love others.
Sure, they may do some good things, but do they genuinely have a heart to “obey the truth” from the inside out because they love God and love people? Sadly, the answer is generally no.
So, even if they impress the world and look the part of a religious person, God will not show them partiality; instead, he will “render to each person according to his deeds.” They will be condemned for their sin.
Verse 8 says that God will judge with “wrath and indignation.” The religious hypocrite will endure the same wrath as the pagan Gentile. Many will endure even more wrath because they had great access to God’s Word and many opportunities to respond.
And so they will be condemned to hell where they will endure “tribulation and distress” for all eternity under the condemnation of God.
God’s not going to play favorites. Verse 9 says that God’s judgment will equally fall on “the Jew first and also the Greek.” And v. 10 says God’s salvation will also equally be bestowed on “the Jew first and also the Greek.” Your family, your nationality, and your spiritual heritage will neither rescue you from God’s judgment or deny you access to God’s grace and salvation. God is not partial.
Therefore, only one thing matters as it concerns your soul. Have you believed on Christ as your Lord and Savior? If you’ve never received Christ, notice what Paul says in 4:2–5. It’s pretty simple. Stop boasting in yourself and your works, and put your faith in Christ, and you will be credited with God’s righteousness, and you will be saved. If you’ve never done that, please respond to God’s kindness with repentance and faith. Be saved today.
And for those of us who are saved, this passage should serve as a sober call to share the gospel with all people. It’s so easy to judge by human appearances, and to so assume that all these people who look so spiritual must be right with God. Hopefully they are, but we can’t assume it. All people must be born again from the most privileged to the most wretched. So, let’s ask the hard questions and be bold enough to point out their hypocrisies and false assumptions. Let’s point them to the only hope of salvation, which is Jesus. Eternity stands in the balance. Be bold about the gospel.