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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible

Romans 2

 

 

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Verses 1-29

The Case of the Cultured Greek

But there is a class of Gentiles who are quite keen in seeing these evils in others, and unhesitatingly judging them for them, while never considering that the same judgment rests upon their own heads. Is it so with my reader? Have you a stern measure for denouncing the evils of others, and a lesser one for yourself? Do you plead extenuating circumstances for yourself? Or do you persuade yourself that your refined, respectable methods of self-indulgence, your cultivated ability to cover your guilt with a fine veneer, has the actual effect of annulling or lessening that guilt in the eyes of a holy and discerning God?

God here turns with a solemn accusation to the cultured Greek - the first 16 verses of Romans 2:1-29 exposing the shallowness of a fine exterior, the utter vanity of confidence in intellect, and declaring the stern unwavering, impartial reality of the judgment of God. Man's judgment of others is his own condemnation; for however cleverly he may conceal his guilt, God tells him pointedly - "Thou that judgest doest the same things" - while the very fact of his ability to judge bears record of a conscience that speaks, but which he chooses to soothe in respect to his own sin.

"But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things." Solemn, straightforward, admirable statement! What folly to attempt to deceive myself! To do so is as much as to hate my own soul, and to hasten that soul to eternal ruin. For God is not deceived. He judges not according to my thoughts and feelings, my excuses and self-righteousness: He judges "according to truth." What unreasonable foolishness to ignore the truth! Can a man think - a man who is adept at accusing others and excusing himself - that he shall escape the judgment of God? Solemn, wholesome considerations for the souls of men!

But apart from the rather indefinite hope of escape, there is another attitude - a deeply incriminating one - that man dares to assume; and this again is put to him in the form of a searching question, "Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" In verse 3 his thoughts favor his own immunity from the judgment of God: in verse 4 his thoughts despise the goodness of God. How contemptible the pride of man!

But we may well pause to consider the virtue, the beauty, the wonder of that which man despises - that is, "the riches of God's goodness and forbearance and longsuffering." Here is the secret of the allowance of the awful march of evil through the world today, the present allowance of man's proud will to assert itself. The more deeply the subject inquiring heart considers the enormity and persistency of man's growth in evil, the more profoundly is the exceeding marvel of God's patience seen. But man, so thoroughly corrupt, will take every possible advantage of the patience of God, while the greater his abuse of it, the greater his contempt for it.

All this is well known, if men would but weigh it well. A point however, that they know not, nor consider is that "the goodness of God leads to repentance." Not the justice or wrath of God here, but the goodness of God. How unspeakably blessed, how altogether above the questions and cavillings of men, yes, how deserving of their deepest, most heartfelt respect and admiration! But repentance is far from the natural heart: fear of punishment there may be indeed, but brokenness and contrition for sin is foreign to the proud will of man. Nothing will, or can lead him to it but the goodness of God - goodness that has melted and subdued many an arrogant, wilful heart, and caused the tears of most hardened sinners to flow in profusion. Hence, truly grievous beyond expression is that folly and wickedness that despises "the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering."

Choosing to follow his own hardness and impenitent heart rather than trust the goodness of God, man is deliberately laying up a treasure of wrath against himself. Living only and fully for this present world he surely is, but he is multiplying eternal results. He may be most complacent that in this world he is reaping nothing of the wilfulness he sows; but it will only mean the greater reaping of wrath "in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God." God needs not to be hasty in settling His accounts, but not one will be left unsettled. He will render to every man according to his deeds. Deeds manifest the man. Subjection to a faithful Creator is displayed by patient continuance in welldoing - an attitude of expectant desire for eternal glory, honor, and incorruptibility. It is of course not a matter of absolute holiness or perfection here; but the heart distinctly shows itself. Does the heart set itself upon that which is good?Does it patiently continue to follow what it pure and true?Does it bear the unmistakable impress of eternity - the consideration of everlasting realities? Is it seeking "glory, honor and incorruptibility"? The end of such a path is entrance into eternal life - the full joy and blessedness of the presence of God for eternity. (It may be remarked that Paul here looks at eternal life more in its future aspect, that is, when separated from the very presence of sin, and in its own proper sphere - Heaven itself. But this does not deny, nor is it inconsistent with the truth found in John's writings, that "he that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life" (John 3:36). It is not a matter of hope, simply, but of fact: every believer is a possessor of eternal life at present, but that life is out of its own essential home, in the midst of foreign elements, the world character being altogether contrary to it, so that its full display must await the pure circumstances of Heaven's glory.)

But on the other hand, is the heart rebellious against the truth? Is there contention rather than subjection? Do you yield yourself to unrighteousness rather than to the truth of God? For there is always yielding of some sort: there must be obedience either to what is true or to what is unrighteous. The very word "obedience" is obnoxious to the hardened heart, but he has nevertheless yielded himself to obey unrighteousness.

Thus he takes his stand. Very well, God, though "slow to anger and plenteous in mercy," will eventually take His own stand in "indignation and wrath." Terrible to think of this as the attitude He will then take toward the unrepentant; while, as two words describe His attitude, so two words describe the consequences for every soul of man that has chosen evil - "tribulation and anguish." But who can realize the awful terror of judgment comprehended in those brief words? As the gospel is "to the Jew first," so is the judgment to those who refuse the gospel; but it is "to the Gentile" just as surely.

But God takes no delight in the punishment of unbelievers, though it is an absolute necessity. His delight is unspeakably deep, however, in those who bow to Him, as verses 7 to 10 bear witness. For the declaration of His awful judgment is both preceded and followed by the assurance of unmingled blessing to those who have chosen the good - "glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile." Incomparable contrast to the eternal destiny and condition of those who in this world had no less opportunity of forgiveness, but "found no place for repentance"!

"For there is no respect of persons with God." How worthy indeed this truth of our deep earnest consideration! Who shall influence God on his behalf? Who shall plead his personal prominence, importance, earthly position or advantage before the only true God? Whatsoever they are is no matter to Him: "God accepteth no man's person." Personalities may mean a great deal in the proud, vain estimate of man; but let no man think to pass God's scrutiny wearing such a cloak: let him rather look well to his credentials, that they are in order - in such order as to meet the demands of perfect righteousness and truth. But neither the Jew's boast in the law, nor the Gentile's confidence in his learning and cultivation will avail at such a time. "For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law." Sin cannot escape the judgment of God, no matter where it is, whether in circumstances of greatest austerity and dignity, or whether in the lowest, most ignorant classes of humanity. No excuses, no exemptions will have the least shadow of consideration. This is justice, pure and perfect; this is righteous, holy judgment - which things we are told "are the habitation of God's throne" (Psalms 89:14). Verses 13 to 15, it will be noted, form a parenthesis, while verse 16 in few words tells us the time, the discernment, the measure, and the executor of God's judgment. The parenthesis meets the natural selfish protests both of the learned and unlearned. Learning does not justify (v. 13); and lack of education does not excuse (vv. 14 & 15). For in the latter case the Gentiles ("who have not the law" - a demarcation ever distinctly drawn in Scripture) manifest in their very nature a recognition of right and wrong such as the law declares. Not that they are by this means correct in every detail: such is not the point. But they naturally conceive some standard of moral regulations, so that "these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves."

"Which show the work of the law written in their hearts." It is certainly not the law itself written in their hearts, but the law's work. And there is surely little difficulty in seeing that the law's work - its very purpose - is to bring sin to remembrance, to convict the heart and conscience of sin. See Romans 3:20. Even those without law have a conscience that bear witness to their sin, while their ability to judge others and their attempts to cover their own sin by excuses, only more fully exposes them. It is a true exposure of man's natural reasoning as regards sin, in whatever state or circumstance he may be; their thoughts accuse or else excuse one another. Either they assume a hard, legal spirit on account of the sins of others, or else a lightness that glosses it over with excuses. But accusation will not atone for sin, nor will excuses put it away. Is there no other attitude toward one who has sinned? Ah yes, indeed, the only one of true value and of pure motives. Do we pray for such as this? - pray from a heart touched and compassionate toward the one who has so dishonored God? Surely this will leave a spirit neither accusing nor light and flippant at the thought of the sins of others. It will lead me more thoroughly and honorably to judge myself and to seek with deepest meekness that the other may also judge his own sin. For God can put sin away, while all my accusing or excusing is shallow, wretched vanity.

All of these things shall however be brought to light, "for there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known." Not only the glaring manifest sins of men will be brought to account "in that day"; but "God will judge the

secrets of men by Jesus Christ," who is Himself "the true Light," - the light by which everything is fully manifested in its true character. Nothing can escape its searching, brilliant rays. Nor will the judgment be according to men's estimates of right and wrong, but as Paul says, "according to my gospel." Paul's gospel is essentially "the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4) - the gospel of the once humbled, despised and rejected Son of Man now exalted at the right hand of God, given a Name above every name, at which "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Man has once dared to judge this lowly, sinless One: then the tables will be turned, and by perfect right He will sit in the seat of judgment.

Could the indictment of the Gentiles be any more complete or conclusive? Who can again lift his head in pride and haughtiness in the face of a record so devastating - a thorough, unadulterated, unalterable record in the Book of God? The summary of the guilt, both of Jews and Gentiles, awaits Romans 3:1-31, but Romans 2:16 ends the specific treatment of the Gentiles.

THE CASE OF THE JEW

Verse 17 summons the Jew to the bar of God to hear the special accusation against him. This will be more quickly noticed in the New Translation (JND), "But if thou art named a Jew" - etc. For in previous verses where Jews were spoken of, it was for the sake of Gentiles who would fain excuse themselves on the ground that they did not have the same opportunity as the Jews did.

The apostle immediately strikes at the complacency of the Jew in the mere fact of his outward position of nearness to God - resting in the law, making his boast of God, knowing God's will, approving things that are more excellent - on account of the instruction of the law - confident that he is a guide of the blind, a light for those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes - and all of this because he has the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.

How exceedingly presumptuous man can be in turning his advantages and privileges (given him by the kindness of God) into occasions of self-exaltation and of belittling others - as those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (Luke 18:9). Solemn indeed that God is compelled to speak thus to the Jew, the one so signally blessed of Him in every conceivable way, as regards earthly advantage. Yet, nearly two thousand years later, at the present time, although the Jews have been cast out of their land and scattered to the ends of the earth, there is still in many of them the pride of assumed superiority on account of their having originally received a revelation from God - some even claiming that their scattering throughout the world was in order that they should the more fully teach the blind, those in darkness, the foolish, and the babes! And this signal mark of God's displeasure and discipline becomes to them an occasion for increased boasting of superior light and position.

But let everyone who has the Word of God take warning from this. For if we (Gentiles) have the further revelation and advantage of the New Testament, are not the same perverting evils becoming more glaring amongst ourselves? Who is he who boasts of an open Bible, yet calmly ignores and disobeys its plain injunctions? Can we dare to flatter ourselves that the sin of Christendom is less atrocious than that of Israel under law? Indeed not; for the abuse of the doctrines and privileges of the manifested grace of God is greater evil than disobedience of the law of God. But our consideration in Romans 2:1-29 is not the perversion of Christianity, but man in need of the Gospel, and simply the introduction of Christianity. The Jew had been already proven under law, and verses 21 to 24 give us the law's righteous exposure of him.

He not only (as the Gentiles) had a conscience that condemned evil in others, but having the Word of God, he taught others in regard to good and evil, but he did not keep what he gloried in teaching. This is the most plainly manifested guilt of all. For to teach the truth is more than to know it; so that the responsibility of the teacher is a grave one indeed. Not without good reason does James tell us - "Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment" (James 3:1, JND).

But despite his teaching abilities, the Jew is here accused before God of 1. evil work (v. 21); 2. evil walk (or associations); and 3. evil worship (v. 22) - concerning all of which he gives the most exemplary teaching. In this, however, the most serious issue is brought decidedly to the fore; that is, that of all people, it was the Jew who had brought direct dishonor upon the Name of God. For his high pretensions which amounted to nothing more nor less than hypocrisy, were the occasion of the ridicule and contempt of Gentiles toward the God that such people professed to worship. The Gentiles took their impression of the God of Israel from the conduct of Israel.

To the Jew circumcision (the sign of his identification with the system of Judaism) was a distinct advantage, but its profit was entirely lost if he broke the law, for the law was the very basis of Judaism; and for a man to boast in that which in practice he casts aside is the most contemptible form of vanity. But disobedience of the law was an outward denial of circumcision, for circumcision (the cutting-off of the flesh) was the distinct sign of self-renunciation for the sake of subjection to the law. Nevertheless, circumcision had brought the Jew into a place of real privilege, for it involved the profession of God's Name - although, of course, unfaithfulness to such a profession called for a stern measure of judgment. Yet, if even an uncircumcised man kept the requirements of the law, would God refuse him merely because of uncircumcision? - indeed would not God rather count his uncircumcision for circumcision?

Notice here that this argument is one that strictly concerns Judaism. But we may easily transfer the principle to Christendom today, where baptism, the outward sign or badge of Christianity is often boasted in and trusted in, while the soul is far from God. And shall not the godly faith of an unbaptized person be counted for baptism - and the baptism of the perverter be counted as no baptism? Not that we would belittle baptism, any more than circumcision is belittled in verses 25-26 in connection with Judaism; but let it be known that baptism is no substitute for, and no supplement to, the reality of faith. Therefore the uncircumcised man, if he keeps the law, is the very judge of the Jew who, having the letter and circumcision, is a transgressor of the law. For the outward claims and pretensions of a man do not make the man. The Jew whose inward motives are not subject to God cannot have a place in "the Israel of God," no matter how rigid and meticulous his formal observance of the rites of Judaism.

The Jew in the eyes of God is that one whose inward faith and hope are in God, and true circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter. The letter here speaks not of the actual words of the law - for these are truly inspired by God - but of a man's outwardly exact adherence to the law's forms. And such a thing without a purified heart - even in Judaism where ceremonialism was in order - is nothing but barren desolation. How much more as is in Christianity, which leaves no room for the elaborate ritual of Judaism! For Christ Himself is given as the altogether absorbing Object of the heart and eyes - the fullness that displaces Old Testament shadows - the Living Son of God by whom all mere religious formalism and machinery is exposed in its cold, heartless haughtiness. "Whose praise is not of men, but of God." The true Jew is not that one who lives and acts for the eyes of men, but for God's eye - who lives not "in the presence of his brethren," but in the presence of God. Jewish parentage rightly requires such character. If it is lacking, a claim based on Jewish relationship is valueless.

 


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Bibliography Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Romans 2:4". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/lmg/romans-2.html. 1897-1910.

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