I don’t know a single person who likes to hear what they have done wrong. Our defenses instantly go up: we bristle in indignation, mount a counteroffensive, or perhaps we simply silent disengage. At the same time, we are quick to see the small faults of others, as well as the larger problems of evil and injustice endemic to human society. What he does is inexcusable; what I do is understandable. I may have done this, but at least I have never done that. In Romans 2:1, after speaking of God’s condemnation on those who reject Him, Paul turns the tables on those who are, perhaps, nodding along smugly:
Therefore you are without excuse, O every man who judges, for in what you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
Do we recognize sin in another? Do we see their failures and weaknesses? According to Paul, what we see is simply an expression of what lies within ourselves. While those in the first chapter deny the essential truth of God’s existence, this chapter is for those who believe in God and accept His commandments, but are utterly unable to fulfill them. “You who preach not to steal,” Paul says in verse 21, “do you steal?” By pointing out the real situation, he delivers a stinging condemnation of the hypocrisy and self-satisfaction that accompany man’s attempt to meet God’s standard alone.
What Paul speaks echoes Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus gives a parable to “certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised the rest.” One self-righteous man prays:
God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
The genuinely repentant tax collector, however, is the one who is justified before God. Paul was both of the persons in this parable – happily self-righteous on the way to Damascus but exposed and penitent after being illuminated by the heavenly light. His presentation of the gospel of God begins with seeing who we are as sinners. When I struggled in college with shame of the gospel, I was unaware of the full extent of its power and scope. I could not happily proclaim the good news to others, because I had not clearly seen the greatness of my own need. I believed that the gospel I preached was true, but I lacked in inward reality.
This much may be familiar territory to many, but Paul continues by pointing us to the marvelous reality we miss if we put our trust in outward appearances or even our own sincere effort to please God in our own strength. Just as Jesus warns in John 8:39-40, Paul concludes that it is not enough to trust in the name of being God’s people. For those whose identity was wrapped up in the promises and covenants of God, it must have been jarring to hear verses 28 and 29:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, in spirit, not in letter, whose praise is not from men, but from God.
The note on in spirit illuminates Paul’s emphasis:
Whatever we are, whatever we do, and whatever we have must be in spirit. This will keep us from the vanity of religion…. The reality of all spiritual things depends on the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God is in our spirit. Hence, the reality of all spiritual matters depends on our spirit, not on anything apart from our spirit. Whatever is in us is vanity unless it is in our spirit. Everything that God is to us is in our spirit.
Romans 2:29, note 2
Are you without God? This is good news for you! Are you serving God by your own effort? This is good news for you! Your background and your excuses fade away in this reality. In our human spirit, indwelt by the Spirit of God, we become no longer sinners, no longer only servants, but sons.
- For a deeper look at this portion of Romans, I recommend message 5(mp3 download) of the Life-study of Romans podcast series.