Saturday, March 5, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 2

"Therefore, you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things."

Romans 2:1 ~~ One of the great rhetorical reversals in the Bible, alongside Ephesians 5:25 and Amos 2:6. It is too easy to proof-text verses out of self-righteousness, to apply a verse to disparage another. While judgment is necessary for moral living, I've found it to be a useful principle to treat God's Word as first and foremost an address to each person individually. When a passage is addressed to wives, it shouldn't be read by husbands; nor should a passage to children be read by fathers; nor should a passage against the Gentiles be read by Jews.  Of course there is a time and a place for reading such things, but doing so requires more maturity and discernment than I'm comfortable assuming I ordinarily possess.

Romans 2:3-4 ~~ Interestingly, this verse against judging others sheds some light on the grace of God that calls us to salvation. Paul wonders whether his audience sinned "not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance." I understand that hellfire sermons (such as Jonathan Edwards' archetypal "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God") may be effective evangelical tools for others, and while I've never found them useful myself I'm not willing to reject or repudiate them simply out of personal prejudice (I have the same response to Pascal's Wager).  However, it is vital to understand that mercy and grace underlie the heart of God's message and underlie the movement of our own hearts towards him.  Moreover, I find it interesting that this verse virtually conflates God's judgment with His kindness, tolerance, and patience, when most people would contrast the two.

Romans 2:6 ~~ God "will render to each person according to his deeds." This is a direct quote from Psalms 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12. It was also cited by Jesus Himself in Matthew 16:27.  The theme that we will inherit according to works recurs throughout the New Testament. Paul would return to the subject in Romans 14:12, 1 Corinthians 2:13, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Ephesians 6:8, and Colossians 3:25. John the Seer repeats those same words of Christ in Revelations 2:23, and the theme reappears at the end of his apocalypse, in Revelations 20:12 and 22:12. Finally, of course, the apostle James has a whole homily on faith and works in the context of salvation in the second chapter of his epistle. Protestant Christians tend to shy away from this theme, thanks to the whole "faith v. works" dispute with Catholicism, but the major theme is restated by so many leaders of the early church that it can't and shouldn't be ignored.

Romans 2:7-8 ~~ Those who persevere in doing good, seeking "glory and honor and immortality" will be rewarded with eternal life; those who persist in selfish ambition and disobedience will receive wrath and indignation.  It seems that the decision to pursue God -- however much or little we see of Him -- is made by faith operating through God's grace.  However, the consequences of that pursuit, whether in wrath or in glorification, will be determined by the degree of our obedience and virtue -- that is, by works.  The distinction between justification (to be made just, right with God) and sanctification (to be made holy, one with God) is in this passage crucial.

Romans 2:9-11 ~~ I find it slightly ironic and more-than-slightly challenging that, after establishing so central a distinction between Jews and Greek, in the context of both wrath and glory, Paul states that "there is no partiality with God." God's impartiality is somewhat foreign to our modern ears, conditioned by sweeping statements of human equality in courts of law. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required..." (Luke 12:48).

Romans 2:12 ~~ Here is a crucial (and oft-overlooked) verse on justification and salvation.  "For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the Law." We are judged according to our deeds, but in light of the impartiality of God, we are judged also according to the degree of knowledge of Him we possess in our hearts. Those who only know Him by general revelation will be judged by a far lower and far gentler standard than those who have received "the oracles of God" (Romans 3:1) directly, and even that will be less severe than the judgment incurred by those who are charged with teaching the Word to others (James 3:1).  Judgment is in accordance with the knowledge in our hearts.

Romans 2:14-16 ~~ These verses speak of a possibility of salvation for Gentiles who do not know the Law, and given that it speaks of them "doing instinctively the things of the Law," we can presume it refers to Gentiles who also have not yet received the Gospel.  I've written on the subject before (here), but it bears repeating: I believe it is possible for someone who has not heard of Jesus Christ to be saved.  Because they already have received the law (the Word) on their hearts, and Jesus is the fullness and fulfillment of that law (the Word made flesh), if they maintain their obedience and desire for that Word (if by God's grace they persevere in doing good, cf. 2:7), that obedience and desire is honored by God despite their lack of knowledge.

Romans 2:17-18 ~~ Those who receive the Law are confident in their ability to be a "guide to the blind" (to those who are unable to see or walk by themselves), a "light to those in darkness" (those who can walk, but are unable to see much at all), a "corrector to the foolish" (those who can both see and walk, but do both poorly), and a "teacher to the infants" (those who can see, but are unable to walk far at all).

Romans 2:17-24 ~~ Here, again, the principle of 2:12 is applied to the Jew.  Those who receive God's Word in its fullness will be judged by the fullness of His Word. Therefore the Jew is condemned by the Law.

Romans 2:27-29 ~~ The righteousness of the Gentiles (who lack such immediate knowledge of God) put the average (sinful) Jew to shame.  It is better to follow God's commands in light of our Christian liberty (the end of our slavery to sin, cf. Galatians 5:1) than to obey the Law without such consciousness.

The principle of judgment according to deeds and according to knowledge is a difficult one, and its difficulty is compounded by contrast with the classic Pauline (and Protestant) emphasis on justification by faith.  Nevertheless, these principles are compatible and mutually necessary for a full understanding of the Divine Economy (God's grace and His works among us), and thus I find it necessary to revisit and seek clarity in the midst of these confusing doctrines.

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