In Romans 1:18-32 Paul explained that human godlessness and wickedness continually attracts the wrath of God. The depth of our human depravity is such that we could never save ourselves from this wrath: it takes the power of God, and his gift of ‘righteousness’ (that is, of acquittal), to do that (1:16-17).

In Romans 2:1 to 3:8 Paul turns his attention away from our observable sinfulness to a hidden sinfulness that lurks behind our observable religion. Our observable religion might fool our human companions, but it doesn’t fool God. He knows that behind our apparent spiritual credentials we are just as impoverished as obvious sinners, and even more blameworthy.

But, you might say, Paul is here reminding the Jewish Christians in Rome of the fundamental sinfulness of the Jews that puts them equally under the wrath of God as the Gentiles. Granted. But none of us who claim to be Christians can escape the warnings Paul expresses here. We cannot stand to the side and simply nod our heads. What he says to the Jews here he could also say similar things to us in the Christian church today.

As he challenges the Christian Jews then, so he challenges all Christians today: do not authenticate yourself by your religious heritage; do not hold yourself superior because you possess the word of God; do not applaud yourself because of your participation in religious rituals.

We who are Christians know God’s kindness, patience and forbearance. We know that, left to ourselves, we would not be saved; left to ourselves we would not have come to repentance. When we pass judgement on another person we are actually passing judgement on ourselves because we, judged on our own personal merit, are similarly guilty. (2:1-4)

If we are busy demanding that our fellow believers keep the letter of the law in order to maintain their salvation, we will find ourselves in a sticky place. If we view our acceptance with God in terms of whether or not we keep God’s requirements, rather than in terms of God’s mercy, we will find that we ourselves are condemned. It is not our possession or affirmation of God’s word that saves us. It is Jesus Christ alone who makes the difference. (2:5-16)

We who claim to be Christians actually do have God’s word, just as the Jews possessed God’s law. But do we who know God’s standards actually live in accordance with those standards? Are we busy telling people they should repent, while all the time we ourselves need to be continually repenting? Is the way we live any more in line with God’s word than the unbelievers we criticize? Do we who align ourselves with the name of Christ actually dishonour his name by the way we live? (2:17-24)

We who claim to be Christians have a range of religions practices which outwardly identify us as Christians. Just as the Jews had circumcision, so we have denominational allegiance, baptism, confirmation, responding to altar calls, Holy Communion, and so on. But these external, observable practices are not the critical thing: God looks at our hearts. Just as circumcision was irrelevant in God’s sight if it was not accompanied by a work of God’s Spirit in the heart, so also baptism, communion or any other external religious practices do not, in themselves, signify anything of merit in God’s sight. (2:25-29)

Paul’s statements in Romans 2 might be difficult for us to swallow, just as they were difficult for the Jewish Christians in Rome. But Paul is here stressing the truth that his indictment of human sinfulness in Romans 1 includes everyone. Jews are not excluded just because they are Jews, possessing both God’s law and circumcision. Christians are not excluded just because they have God’s word and various religious identifiers.

Apart from God’s mercy, no one is saved.

Apart from Jesus Christ, no one is saved.

As Paul concludes in Romans 3:9-12: ‘What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands, no one who seek God.

All have turned away, they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good, not even one.”’

For this reason, because of this global human disqualification and guilt, the gospel of necessity has to be as Paul has described it:

‘... it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last’ (1:16,17).

© Rosemary Bardsley 2019