When it was time for my friends and I to choose a Boy Scout troop, my Dad drove us to what they called the “Camporee”. Each summer all got together and set up campsites in the woods around a big meadow and had all sorts of group activities and competitions. They also invited boys like us so that we could spend a Saturday getting to know the different troops. It was a rainy weekend. We parked in big muddy parking lot and then had to hike into the site down a muddy path that seemed miles long. Even before we were out of the station wagon, Dad was grumbling about the muddy mess we’d make in the car on the way home. He’d come prepared, however, with garbage bags to cover the floor mats
We spent all day hanging out with the Boy Scouts. We stayed for dinner and a campfire and then headed back to the car in the dark. After a day of hikers going back and for the path was one long slip-’n-slide of mud. Dad was leading the way in the dark with a flashlight and at one particularly muddy section he told us to be careful. He didn’t want mud in the car. Walk around that way. And then—whoop!—Dad was flat on his back and covered in mud. As I recall, the garbage bags he had carefully laid out on the floor mats to protect them from our muddy feet had to be rearranged on the driver’s seat. It could have happened to anyone, but we thought it was funny because it happened to the person who kept warning us about the mud and telling us how unhappy he’d be with us if we got mud all over the car.
In our passage today from Romans, Paul addresses something similar, but far more serious than mud. As he’s been for most of Chapter 1, Paul is still talking about this idea of judgement. Remember, he’s said that the gospel—the announcement about the crucified and risen Jesus—is good news not only because it is the power of God to save, but also because it reveals or unveils the wrath of God against ungodliness and unrighteousness. We have a tendency to think of the good news as being strictly about salvation from sin, but Paul explains that God’s mercy and his wrath are two sides of the same coin. He loves his Creation. He’s passionate about setting right what our rebellion has corrupted and turned up-side down. And when God sets his Creation to rights it takes two forms. Those who have aligned themselves with King Jesus will find themselves made new and sharing in once again in the life of God. But those who continue in rebellion and who continue to work ungodliness and unrighteousness will be destroyed. You can be part of God’s making all things new or you can continue to be part of the problem and be wiped away as all things are made new. God is passionate about his Creation, he desires to see it set right, and when he’s done that there will be no place for those who insist on spreading evil and corruption.
The last two Sundays we’ve followed along as Paul has explained how things got the way they are. Human beings chose to reject the goodness of God and rebelled. We decided to try our hand at being gods ourselves. We’ve tried to take on God’s role. This led us into idolatry as we refused to give glory and worship to God and instead worshiped the Creation, whether that’s our own selves or things like power and violence or sex and money. And then, Paul said, idolatry leads naturally to sin with the result that we corrupt his good creation and unleash all sorts of evil into it. He first singles out homosexuality as a prime example, because it illustrates how, in our sin, we reject both God’s design for us and his purpose for us. God created men and women to be complementary. His first command to us was to be fruitful and multiply. Homosexuality undermines and rejects this at every level. So sin isn’t the breaking of arbitrary rules that God has set as if he’s some kind of killjoy who just wants to interfere with our fun. Sin, in very real ways, undermines his goodness and the good he intends for us. It’s ultimately a rejection of him. And then, lest we start feeling self-righteous about ourselves because we’re not one of those awful homosexuals, Paul lists a host of other sins: “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice…envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Homosexuality was uniquely abominable to Jews, but Paul goes on to list all these other sins that undermine the life and the flourishing that God, in his goodness, intends for us. And there’s not a person alive who isn’t guilty of something in this list of sins.
Paul has made it clear that everyone is guilty. Everyone. And so now he can continue in Chapter 2, but he changes gears a bit. Here he adopts a formal rhetorical style known as diatribe—which meant something different then than it does today. A diatribe was a formal style in which you debated an imaginary opponent. You would put them on the spot with rhetorical questions and answer their hypothetical objections. But the big question is: Who is Paul’s audience? Obviously, it’s the Christians in the Roman church, but who is (or who are) the imaginary opponent(s) he’s arguing with? Let’s look first at what he writes in Romans 2:1.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
“You have no excuse when you judge—I don’t care who you are!—because we’re all guilty. When you stand in judgement on others you only condemn yourself as a hypocrite.” Having just read the end of Chapter one it’s not hard to imagine ourselves, perhaps, with the business end of Paul’s argument pointed at us. How often as Christians are we guilty of judging homosexuals, while being guilty of one—or probably several—of the other sins Paul lists?
No, before we go further, we have to be clear about what “judgement” means. It’s popular today for people to think that saying such-and-such activity is a sin is judgement. We might, for example, point out as Paul has that homosexuality is a sin and someone might throw Matthew 7:1 back at you saying, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Brothers and Sisters, calling sin “sin” isn’t the same as judging. If God has called a thing sin, then it’s sin and no one’s being judgemental in saying so. Judging—the sort of judging that Jesus condemned and that Paul is talking about here—is when we try to take God’s role on ourselves and consign a person to eternal judgement for his or her sins. That is not our calling or our duty. It’s sometimes a fine line to walk. God does call us as his people to work for righteousness in this world and we can’t do that without addressing the problem of sin—in ourselves and in others. He calls us to proclaim the good news about Jesus and the first step in following Jesus is to repent—to turn aside from everything that is not Jesus, including sin. We can’t talk about the gospel without also talking about our sin problem. It helps to remember that Jesus came not to condemn, but to redeem. And Paul stresses here that we’ve all sinned—it’s the universal human problem—and, therefore, we all stand condemned. That’s why Jesus came and that’s why Jesus sends us out to announce the gospel.
So who is Paul addressing here? Who’s the hypothetical opponent in this diatribe? It certainly could be a pagan. There were moralists amongst the Greek and Roman philosophers. Seneca the Younger comes immediately to mind. He was an advisor to Nero when Paul wrote this. Seneca wrote about the need for good morals and he berated many for their immorality. But then Seneca was caught in his own immoral schemes. He turned out to be a hypocrite and a high profile one at that. There are lots of Senecas in the world. And I do think that Paul has pagan moralisers in mind. But as we go on it becomes clear that he’s really zeroing in on the Jews. The fact that he singles out homosexuality points to this, because it was something, as I said, particularly abominable to the Jews. We’re also reminded that when Jesus issued his famous warning about “Judge not, lest ye be judged” he was giving it to the Jews. They looked down their noses at the immoral pagans who practised all sorts of immoral things while thinking that because they were God’s chosen, he would somehow overlook their sins. But Paul says that no one is without excuse. You might not have broken one of those sins we think of as really big and grossly immoral ones, but you’re still guilty. God’s law is like a pane of glass. You can throw a rock through it and smash it into tiny pieces or you can just crack it a little bit, but either way it’s broken. Or think about the mud. Maybe you fell flat on your back in it, maybe you went for a deliberate roll in it and you’re covered head to toe, or maybe you’ve walked through it carefully to be sure you only got it on your shoes—just as we often do with sin, thinking just a little won’t really matter. But it does matter. What doesn’t matter is how much. A little or a lot, Dad’s not going to let you into his clean, new car with any amount of mud on you. This why Paul writes what he does in verses 2-3:
We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
Notice: Sin will be judged and, Paul stresses, rightly so. Sin isn’t the breaking of some arbitrary rules. God isn’t some killjoy just waiting for us to break his rules. Sin is open rebellion against his goodness and faithfulness and it corrupts this word—and our race—which he created and dearly loves. If Creation is going to be set right sin must be dealt with. And notice too: judgement is God’ prerogative, not ours. If we take God’s role as judge on ourselves we only dig our rebellious hole deeper.
No one is without excuse. If we’re honest with ourselves we know that we’ve all sinned. How then can we possibly think that God will judge others, but overlook our sins? But then this is precisely what many in Israel thought. They presumed on God’s covenant faithfulness. This is what Paul gets at next when he writes:
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:4-5)
Our culture tends to fall into one of two errors. God is either a celestial genie or Santa Claus who exists to indulge our every want and who would never punish anyone or he’s a tyrant in the sky just waiting for us take a wrong step so that he can punish us. Either we reject the whole idea of judgement or twist it into something that it isn’t. Paul steers a path between these two errors and shows us what God is really like. He is rich in kindness and forbearance and patience. God is swimming in kindness. God has a never-ending supply of patience. And why? And why does he show us so much kindness, forbearance, and patience when we so badly deserve judgement? Why is he patient with us in our sin even as it corrupts his good creation, even as we hurt others and destroy life? Why is he patient even when there are murderer and rapists and wars and genocide in the world? Paul says that it’s because God wants to see us repent and turn aside from our idolatry and sin and come back to him. And here’s our problem of self-righteousness again. We want God to come back in his righteous wrath to deal with the murderers and rapists and to stop the war and the genocide, but we forget that for God to return as judge also means that he has to deal with our sins too, even if they are smaller by comparison. The pane of glass is broken. He can’t fix the gaping hole made by the rock and not fix the small cracks we’ve made around the edges. In his time he will deal with sin—everyone’s sin—but he is kind and patient in the meantime so that we—and that includes you and me along with the murderers and the rapists and the war criminals and the dictators—so that we can repent and be part of the making new instead of the being wiped away and destroyed with everything that’s wrong.
Our problem is that so long as we—and remember Paul’s hypothetical opponent in this argument is unbelieving Israel, but what he says applies to us too—as long as we insist on taking on God’s role of judge ourselves, judging others while ignoring our own sin and failing to repent, we store up God’s wrath for ourselves. Again, we dig ourselves deeper and deeper into condemnation.
Paul reminds me of a young guy our shop hired when I was a computer tech. He dropped out of high school so that he could get his GED while learning how to fix computers. He was a real go-getter with a strong work ethic, but he had never learned to follow instructions. He charged into things without knowing what he was doing. Before he jumped into a job we’d ask if he’d read the service manual. He would lie and say that he had. And then he’d break things because he didn’t know what he was doing. One day I watched as a hard drive went sailing through the air to crash on the floor. He destroyed it. He hadn’t read the manual and didn’t know there was clip that held the mounting bracket in place. He just tried to pry it out—and when it came out, it really came out. And, of course, he hadn’t backed up the customer’s data before he started working on the computer—something else he should have done first. Every day it was something like this. Usually he broke parts we could replace without spending a lot of money and the service manager would make a phone call to calm an angry customer. But this kid never got fired. He was a good kid. Our manager wanted to give him a chance. He was kind and patient in the hopes that this young man would learn. And then one day he mishandled the 27” LCD on an iMac and cracked it. It wasn’t a cheap part we could pull from an old computer. It wasn’t a part the boss could order under warranty even though it was our fault. The part cost more than a new computer. The general manager had to be told. Judgement finally came and the kid was fired.
God gives us every chance to repent. He even gave his own Son as a sacrifice for our sins. But eventually judgement will come and if we refuse to avail ourselves of God’s grace, if we refuse to repent, if we keep on thinking that we’re special and God won’t judge us like he will everyone else, well, when the day of his judgement comes we’ll have heaped his wrath on ourselves. Jesus spent his entire ministry warning Israel of just this. God had been patient and kind, he’d even sent his own Son, but in a generation judgement was coming. Paul, writing in the early 50s, knew that judgement was close. He also knew that the judgement that was soon to fall on Israel—the judgement that came when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple—would also come one day on the Gentile world too. God is kind and patient, he desires repentance, but if he is truly good and faithful, he must at some point set his world to rights and that means dealing with our idolatry and sin.
And so in verse 6, Paul writes:
He will render to each one according to his works…
And I know who’s paying attention at this point because you’ve perked up a bit in your chairs or are giving me looks of consternation. Paul says that God will render to each according to his works and we want to say, “But…but…but…No! It’s by faith, not works!” We’ll have to leave this to later on in the letter where Paul will address the problem. Right now Paul’s quoting from Psalm 62:12:
For you will render to a man
according to his work.
and Proverbs 24:12:
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
The answer to the question of Proverbs is, for Paul, an emphatic “Yes!” If Paul is arguing that the justice of God is superior to the justice of Caesar, then yes, God must and God will judge each according to his works. But notice what this looks like in verses 7-8:
…to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
It’s very common to think that “justification by faith” means that God will not judge us according to our works, but Paul’s never actually says that. His theology goes a lot deeper than that and we’ll unpack that over the course of Romans, but notice what he says here. Those who, in the midst of so much sin and evil, patiently commit themselves to doing good and who set their hearts on glory, honour, and immortality—the things of God’s kingdom—will have what the ESV calls “eternal life”. That phrase “eternal life” has become so loaded with baggage we’re better off translating it as the “life of the age to come”. Yes, it’s eternal, but more importantly, it’s the life God shares with us as we take part in his kingdom, as we take part in his world finally set to rights. If we think of it that way, the life of the age to come is the natural reward for those pursue well-doing. Why? Because they’ve committed themselves to God’s ideals and ways—they’ve aligned themselves to the solution to sin and corruption. But those who are selfish—who refuse to recognize the truth that God exists and is worthy of their glory and worship—those who practise ungodliness and unrighteousness, they will reap the wrath of God’s judgement.
The first group seeks God and seeks to see his Creation—not to mention themselves and the rest of us—set to rights. They seek good and they seek it God’s way. They will have the life of God’s coming age when everything really is finally set right. But those who continue to obstinately reject God and his goodness can have no part in it. When God does finally come to set things to rights and to clean house, they’ll be swept away. There can be no place in the world set right for those who insist on overturning it.
Paul goes on:
There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:9-11)
Judgement is coming and God shows no partiality—he doesn’t play favourites. He wouldn’t be good and just if he did. As Paul has stressed already, even the pagans are without excuse. Creation shouts that there is a Creator who is worthy of our honour and our worship. No one is without excuse. And if that’s true for the pagans who have never heard of God’s law or known his Messiah, how much more is it true for the Jews to whom God has been especially kind and merciful and to whom he revealed himself in so many ways and over so many centuries? This is why Paul stresses this idea—and it will come up repeatedly in the rest of Romans—of the Jew first and then the Greek (or the Gentile or non-Jew). He’s already said that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to the Jew first, because it was to the Jews that Jesus came. In fact, it was very literally for the Jews whom Jesus died. He died for those who stood in the court and shouted to Pilate, “Crucify him!” He suffered the same crucifixion that the Jewish rebels would suffer when the Romans came down on Jerusalem like a ton of bricks, bringing God’s judgement—a punishment the Jewish Christians escaped when they fled the city as Jesus had warned them to do. God’s salvation came first to the Jews and from them was extended to the Gentiles as they were welcomed into this New Israel embodied by Jesus himself.
But just like salvation, judgement also had to come on the Jews first. They were the ones to whom God had given his law, they were the ones to whom God had sent his Messiah, they were the one entrusted with the great story that told the world about God’s goodness and faithfulness, about his Creation, and about the age to come in which he would set it all right. They were the ones tasked with making God known to the Gentiles and so how could God be just and punish the Gentiles for their rebellion without first punishing his own people for theirs?
But, again, Paul stresses, for those who do good—for the Jew first, but also for the Greek—for all those who seek him, who honour him, who seek after his kingdom, they will know its peace and they will themselves be honoured and glorified by God just as he honoured and glorified Jesus, his Messiah.
Brothers and Sisters, Paul issues a very solemn warning here. He’s directing it first and foremost at his fellow Jews who presumed on their special covenant status with God. And Paul is also addressing pagan moralists who took a similar position. Jew or Gentile, they were being hypocritical, pointing judgemental fingers at others while thinking that God would overlook their own sins. Paul’s warning Jews and pagans, but consider that he’s writing all of this to Christians. He could assume, he could take it for granted that the people in the Roman church would never be such hypocrites. And yet we’re sadly familiar today with many professing Christians who point fingers at others while their own lives are in sinful disarray. Most of us are probably guilty of doing just this from time to time. Brothers and Sisters, watch out. Be careful not to presume on the kindness and patience of God. To name the name of Jesus is to invoke the Judge to whom everyone will one day have to give account, not least his own people. As we prayed in the Collect today, no amount of good works, no amount of moralising, no amount of anything that is otherwise good is of any value without love—the same sort of love so plainly on display in God’s kindness and patience for us.
Let’s pray that Collect again. O Lord, you have taught us that whatever we do without love is worth nothing: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues; without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.