Life and Death in Paul’s Letters

The traditional view in the church is that people are immortal and that sinners will suffer in hell for all eternity.

With the gospels excluded, Paul wrote most of the New Testament.  Paul uses the phrases “immortality” and “eternal life” about 14 times in his letters, but he taught that God will give immortality and eternal life only to people who persevere in doing good.  He never wrote that sinners will suffer in hell for eternity.  He does not use the word “hell” even once.  In his many writings he consistently warns sinners that they will die.  For instance, in the following unambiguous verse he sets life and death as the only two possible outcomes:

 “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live“ (Rom. 8:13).

This is not the temporary death which faces all people, but that awful and final death which only sinners will suffer.  Notice in the following that this death is the result of sin:

unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice … the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death (Rom. 1:29-32)

You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness (Rom. 6:16)

… the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)

In his writings death is explicitly and consistently the opposite of eternal life:

According to Romans 6:16-22 the result (v16) or “outcome” (v22) of sin is “death”, but the outcome of being “freed from sin” is “eternal life”.

Then follows the well-known statement that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).

Galatians 6:8 contrasts “corruption” with “eternal life”.  The one who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Corruption is death.

Our Saviour Christ Jesus abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2Tim 1:10).

Romans 5:21 says that “sin reigned in death”.  This means that sin has the power to condemn people to death.  On the other hand, according to that same verse “grace … reign … to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”.  This means that grace, like a king, bestows eternal life.

Since “death” is the opposite of “eternal life”, this death of the sinner is also “eternal”.  The death that Paul consistently warns sinners of is an eternal death.

Some statements promise eternal life without mentioning death as the alternative:

According to Romans 2:6-7 God will render eternal life to those who seek immortality by persevering in doing good, but wrath to those who obey unrighteousness.

We believe in Him for eternal life“ (1Tim 1:16).

… we are heirs according to the hope of eternal life“ (Titus 3:7).

“Fight the good fight of faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called“ (1Tim 6:12).

God, who cannot lie, promised eternal life long ages ago (Titus 1:2).

Since eternal life is promised to those persevere in doing good (Rom. 2:7), it is implied by such verses that “those who obey unrighteousness” will not live eternally, but will die an eternal death.

In Paul’s writings “eternal life” is received by grace: “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:22-23).  Grace leads to “eternal life” (Rom. 5:21).  On the other hand, death is earned:

People who practice unrighteousness deserve death (Rom. 1:29-32)

The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:22-23).

Paul therefore promises eternal life as the gift to those that are “in Christ”, “whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).  But eternal death is the “wages of sin”.  Paul never deviates from this.  He never refers to “hell” and he never says that the sinner will live eternally.

LAW OF DEATH – LAW OF LIFE

In Romans 7 Paul says that he serves “the law of sin” with his “flesh” (7:25, cf. 23).  By this he means what he wrote earlier in that chapter, namely that “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (7:14), because “I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (7:15).  A few verses later he calls it “the law of sin and of death” (8:2).  He added “and of death” also because of what he wrote earlier, namely that sin results in death (7:11, 7:5).  All that the law can do is point out sins (7:8-9).  The law cannot protect from the death penalty (7:9-11).  “The law of sin and of death” is therefore the cause and effect relationship that (firstly) the law ‘causes’ sin (7:5) by defining sin and identifying sin in people, and (secondly) that sin “bear fruit for death” (7:5; 10-11).  This “law … of death” can be graphically depicted as follows:

LAW => SIN => DEATH

1 Corinthians 15:56 also explains this sequence by saying that “the law” is the “power of sin” and “sin” is “the sting of death”.

But Paul also describes a “law … of life”.  The full name is “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that “set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2).  This is the “law” that, if God’s Spirit dwells in you, He will, at His return, “give life to your mortal bodies“ (8:11).

These two “laws”—one resulting in death and the other resulting in life—Is another example of the many contrasts in Paul writings between life as God’s grace in Jesus Christ our Lord, and death as the wages of sin.

1 Corinthians 15

In this chapter Paul responds to “some among you (who) say that there is no resurrection of the dead” (v12; cf. v13, 15-16, 20 and 29).  Resurrection of the dead is generally accepted today in Christianity.  It is surprising to learn that this was disputed in the early church.  It was probably due to the influence of the Sadducees.  As we know, the church initially consisted mostly of Jews, many of whom must have been Sadducees:

On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘if a man dies having no children …”. (Matthew 22:23-24).

Paul counters this false teaching by pointing out that “Christ has been raised” (v13-17, 12, 20):

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v22, 23).

The false teachers defended their stance by asking “with what kind of body do they come?” (v35).  This is basically the same tactics as used by the Sadducees that questioned Christ in the quote above, effectively saying that it is not possible, therefore it will not happen.  Like us today, they found it difficult to imagine a world where people do not become sick and do not die.  The inability to trust God’s promises of this future world is really a lack of faith.  It is really great arrogance to limit what God can do to what we can understand.

In response Paul points to God’s immense creative powers as reflected in the different types of bodies of people, animals, birds and fish (v38, 39).  The miracle of creation should teach us that we cannot limit what God can do to what we can understand.  We can learn a lesson from the manna which the Israelites received in the wilderness.  Like mother’s milk for babies, the manna was perfect food.  It contained all the required nutrients, with none of the poisonous substances that we have in our food today.  However, the Israelites became used to the manna that appeared every day on the desert floor.  They were, after a while, unable to see the miracle.  In the same way today people look at the miracles of nature, and they see nothing miraculous, because they became used to it.  We need to open our eyes, realise the impossibility of the miracles in the world around us, and trust God to be able to do much more than what we can imagine:

things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.” (1Co 2:9)

In this chapter Paul explains the resurrection of the dead.  In contrast to the general belief in the church today, which is that all people have immortal souls, Paul’s explanation in a number of ways supports the main premise of this article, which is that, in Paul’s writing, sinners will die an eternal death:

Firstly; as from verse 35 Paul answers the questions he was confronted with, namely “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?”  He answers that the “natural body” (v44) is “perishable” (v42, 53), dishonoured, weak (v43) and “mortal” (v53, 54).  Paul does not describe some part of us as “perishable” and “mortal”.  Our entire being is “perishable” and “mortal”.  No distinction is made between body, soul and spirit.  He continues to say that what is raised, in glory and in power (v43), is “a spiritual” (v44), “imperishable” (v42, 52, 53) and immortal (v53, 54)body” (v44), for the “perishable” “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v50).  By being made imperishable and immortal, they inherit “eternal life”.  People are therefore perishable.  It is only those that are Christ’s that will be resurrected with imperishable bodies.  Sinners are therefore not able to live for eternity.

Granted, this chapter only deals with resurrection of God’s people.  “The rest of the dead” will also “come to life”, 1000 years after the resurrection of those who are Christ’s (Rev. 20:4-5).  Jesus similarly said that “all who are in the tombswill hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment“ (John 5:28-29).  Therefore a possible counter-argument is that sinners will also be raised with imperishable and immortal bodies.

However, the Bible never teaches that.  To the contrary, Paul consistently declares that sinners will die.  And Revelation 20, after it predicts that sinners will be raised to a second life (20:4-5), also describes a second death:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14).

Jesus also, after His statement that all will be resurrected, said that “those who did the good deeds” (John 5:29) will receive “life” (v29, 40) or “eternal life” (v39).  The implication is that “those who committed the evil deeds” will not receive “eternal life”.

Secondly, verses 22 to 28 describe the “coming” of Christ (v23), when “in Christ all will be made alive” (v22), as well as the events after the coming of Christ.  The purpose and end result of these events is that “God may be all in all” (v28).  This does not leave space for a hell where creatures curse God.

Thirdly, since some of the Christians did not believe that people have immortal souls, this would have been a good time for Paul to teach this.  But instead he argues that God’s people will be resurrected with immortal bodies (v42).

Notice that even in this chapter–with its heavy theology—Paul finds time for his irritating habit of warning us against sin:

Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals.  Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame” (v33, 34).

We like the wonderful theology of the Bible and complex arguments, but Paul’s frequent warnings against sin is irritating because it speak to us not only intellectually, but require us to correct our desires and behaviour.  But this is the sign of a true teacher.  This is what really matters.  Most theologians will describe the main theme of the letter to the Romans as salvation through faith, but it is proposed here that this letter is mainly a warning against sin.

THE LAST ENEMY

The phrase ‘final events’ is used in this section for the coming of Christ and the events that follow there-after.  Note the sequence of the final events in 1 Corinthians 15:

First “in Christ all will be made alive … at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:22-23).

Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (v24).  “The end” therefore refers to events that will follow in time after Christ’s return.  According to Revelation “the end” is 1000 years after Christ’s return, when “the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also” (Rev. 20:10).

The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).

 Notice the word “abolish” in verses 24 and 26.  It means to eliminate.  The final events eliminate God’s enemies.

Death is therefore God’s enemy.  Death never was God’s will.  He did not want it.  Death is the consequence of rebellion against Him.  When He has “abolished all rule and all authority and power” (v24) that set themselves against Him and His laws, and sin is thereby eradicated, death will also be eradicated.

We also find in the book of Revelation a reference to the abolishment of death, and it is also mentioned after all other enemies are abolished.  Consider the sequence of the final events in Revelation:

Before Christ’s coming, “the kings of the whole world” are gathered together “for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (16:14, 16).  “The great day of God”, also called “for the great day of their wrath” (6:17), is an alternative for the phrase ‘final events’.

When Christ returns (19:11), with the armies of heaven (19:14), a number of things happen.  Firstly, the beast and the false prophet are thrown alive into the lake of fire (19:8).  Secondly, the assembled (gathered) kings and their armies (19:19) are killed (19:21, 19).  Note that they are not thrown into the lake of fire with the beast and the false prophet.  Thirdly, “the devil (is) … bound … for a thousand years” (20:2).  Note that the devil is also not thrown in the lake of fire.  Fourthly, those that are Christ’s “came to life” (20:4).

All of God’s people are now alive and all of the Beast’s people are now dead.  Then follows the thousand years during which judgment will be given to those that are Christ’s (20:4) and they will reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4).  It is elsewhere proposed that this is a time for those that are rescued from this present evil age (Gal 1:4) to study history of the rebellion against God, and to understand its causes and consequences, in order to understand God’s judgments.  They will have a thousand years to prepare for the traumatic events at the end of the thousand years.

When the thousand years are completed, a further series of important events follow.  The people that “worshiped the beast” come to life (20:4-5).  “Satan (is) released from his prison” (20:7) to “deceive the nations” (20:8), “to gather them together for the war” (20:8) against “the saints” (20:9).  It almost seems as if the war before the thousand years is continued (19:19).  “The nations” surround the saints (20:9), but “fire came down from heaven and devoured them” (20:9), and “the devil … (is) thrown into the lake of fire” (20:10).  The devil is now also in the lake of fire, but the worshipers of the beast not yet.  They have now been killed for a second time, and are dead, but not yet in the lake of fire.

Then follows the judgment of the dead (20:12, 13).  John “saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne” (20:12), but because they are described as “the dead”, “standing before the throne” should be read symbolically.  They are not brought to life again for a third life.

After the judgment of the dead, and as a consequence of it “death and Hades (are) thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (20:14).  “Hades” is where the dead are.  This confirms that the dead are not resurrected to a third life.  They are dead and remain dead when they are thrown in the lake of fire.

Now all of God’s enemies are in the lake of fire.  The beast and the false prophet were thrown in the lake of fire at the return of Christ, the devil after the war at the end of the thousand years, and the worshipers of the beast after the judgment of the dead.  Next the “new heaven”, the “new earth” and the “new Jerusalem” are introduced (21:1-2), where “there will no longer be any death” (21:4).

Note that in Revelation 19 and 20, when something is thrown into the lake of fire, it never again takes part in the war against the Lamb (17:14):

At Christ’ coming, the beast and the false prophet are thrown in the lake of fire, and do not take part in the war at the end of the 1000 years.

Then, at the end of the thousand years, Satan is thrown in the lake of fire, never to be seen again.

The worshipers of the beast are only thrown in the lake of fire after the judgment of the dead, but there-after not mentioned again.

It is proposed that when something is thrown in the lake of fire, it is permanently eliminated.  Therefore, when Revelation says that “death” is thrown into the lake of fire, it means that death is permanently eliminated.  This agrees with 1 Corinthians 15:26, which states that death will be “abolished” right at the end of the final events.  After sinners have suffered that awful final and eternal second death—never to live again—death will exist no longer:

there will no longer be any death (Rev. 21:4)

Man was created to live eternally, but was warned “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).  Whatever that means, the consequence of that first sin will be removed.  Death itself will exist no more.  Man will no longer live under the threat and fear of death:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

“The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:3, 4).

Fully convinced of the love of our God and Father, the people that have been rescued from the present evil age will live without any fear of death.   They will understand why it was absolutely necessary to permanently eliminate the worshipers of the beast, some of whom they loved and admired deeply.  The thousand years of “judgment” (20:4) has given them an understanding and full confidence in God’s decisions.

HOW CHRIST EXPLAINED HELL

Paul does not mention “hell”, but Christ did (Mat. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5).  He called it “the fiery hell” (Mat. 5:22; 18:9), even “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48), that destroys “both soul and body” (Mat. 10:28).

It is often assumed that people will remain in hell forever because the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”, but it is the worm that is immortal, not man.  The immortal worm and endless fire is simply an expression that indicates that the entire being will be destroyed; that nothing will remain.  In ancient times corpses were often destroyed by fire, but where wood was scarce, there always was the risk that a portion of the body will remain.  And due to the dry conditions the corpse often dried up and the worms died before the worms could consume it.  Therefore the expression the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” simply means that nothing will remain; “both soul and body” will be consumed (Mat. 10:28).

Paul did not use the word hell, but he did describe it.  In addition to death, he wrote that wrath, indignation, tribulation and distress await those who “do not obey the truth” (Rom. 2:5, 8, 9).

LAKE OF FIRE

The book of Revelation does not use the word “hell” either, but it does say that the person that “worships the beast and his image” “will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night” (14:9-11).  This “fire and brimstone” refers to the “lake of fire and brimstone” (20:10), where “the devil … the beast and the false prophet … will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).  How is this reconciled with Paul’s consistent view that sinners will die, and with Christ’s statement that body and soul will be destroyed in hell?

Firstly, Revelation is a book of symbols, and we should be careful not to read symbols as literal.  For instance, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” is a symbol, because the smoke of the great city (17:18) Babylon also “rises up forever and ever” (19:3), but the “ten horns … will burn her up with fire” (17:16).  She will be destroyed.  The ever rising smoke is simply a symbol that these events would always be remembered.

Secondly, the beast will be tormented forever and ever (20:10), but the beast is not a literal beast or a literal person.  It is a symbolic representation of worldly anti-God powers over thousands of years. (Compare 13:2 with Daniel 7).  The beast therefore cannot literally be tormented forever and ever.  Its torment must also be a symbol.

Thirdly, as argued above, everything that is thrown in lake of fire is permanently eliminated.  The lake of fire is twice explained as “the second death” (20:14; 21:8).  The intention must be to indicate that this death is different from the first death.  All people are resurrected from death.  Therefore all people live twice.  But the worshipers of the beast also die twice (19:21; 20:9).  After the judgment of the dead their second death becomes permanent through the judgment of the dead (20:12).  Only then are they permanently eliminated by being thrown in the lake of fire (20:14).

Fourthly, it says in 14:10 that the worshipers of the beast “will be tormented … in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb”.  Will the Lamb and His angels remain in hell forever?  Hardly!  This is “the great day of their wrath” (6:17), which will presumably not be limited to one day, but it will end.  God gave Christ “authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27).  “The end” will only come “when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1Co 15:24).

CONCLUSION

The main purpose of this article is to show that Paul never wrote of eternal punishment for sinners.  He consistently warns that sinners will die.  This death:

  • Is earned. It is the wages of sin.
  • Is irreversible and permanent. It is not the temporary death through which all must go.  It is an eternal death.
  • Is only for sinners.

Paul taught that people are perishable and mortalHe often refers to “immortality” and “eternal life”, but wrote that that would only be received at the coming of Christ, and only by people who persevere in doing good, whose names are in the book of life.

Paul is the main writer of the New Testament, if the gospels are excluded.  Therefore, where did this idea come from that people have immortal souls?  This concept is common to all religions, and has very early on infiltrated the church.  People justify this view with certain Bible texts.  This article shortly discusses some of the texts used by such teachers, namely a few statements made by Christ and a few texts from the book of Revelation.

Christ referred to the unquenchable fire where their worm does not die, but it was shown that is an idiom to express the fact that nothing will remain of such people.  The worm will not die until everything has been consumed.

The book of Revelation talks about torment “day and night forever and ever”, but Revelation is a book of symbols, and it was shown that this eternal torment is a symbol and means that their torment will always be remembered.

Much, much more can be said about the topic of eternal life and death, but for every verse that can be used to support an eternal hell, there are ten verses that support the principle that sinners will die.

TO: General Table of Contents

Romans 2 – Verse by Verse

2:1 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. 2:2 And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.  2:3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?

The last part of Romans 1 describes and explains the behavior of the idol-worshipers (1:23, 25), referring to them as “they” (1:32).  Now 2:1 switches to ”you”.  Paul has therefore now shifted his focus to his readers.

More specifically, he now focusses on those readers that do two things.  They pass judgment (2:1), but “practice the same things” (2:1-3).  Since 2:1 follow immediately after the description of the idol-worshipers, they judge the idol worshipers, yet do the same things as the idol-worshipers.  But somehow they believe that they will escape God’s judgment.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

It cannot be the church in Rome in general, because Paul wrote of this church: “your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (1:8), while he describes the people who judge as stubborn and unrepentant (2:5).

For two reasons they seem to know God’s law.  Firstly, the fact that they judge the idol-worshipers implies that they know God’s law.  Secondly, the word “therefore”, with which 2:1 starts, means that these people that judge “have no excuse” (2:1) because of what is said in the previous verse, and the previous verse refers to people that “know the ordinance of God”:

They know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but … (1:32).

If they know God’s law, they are either Jews or church-people

Later in the same chapter Paul explicitly refers to Jews, similarly describing them as judging others, but doing the same things:

if you bear the name “Jew” … are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind … a corrector of the foolish … you … who teach another, do you not teach yourself? … You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?  You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? (2:17-24).

This is a further indication that these people that judge other are Jews.

For these reasons it is proposed that Paul is now addressing a tendency found amongst Jews—also amongst Jewish Christians—to judge sin in other people, while they do the same things.

To explain: The Lord gave the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) to the disciples during Pentecost (Acts 2:1) because many devout Jews from all nations were gathered in Jerusalem at that time (Acts 2:5).  In other words, the Lord intended the gospel to go to the Jews first, even to the Jews that were dispersed amongst the nations, such as the Jews in Rome.  On Pentecost the disciples miraculously received the ability to speak the many different languages of these Jews (Acts 2:6).  On that day 3000 Jews were converted to Christ by the preaching of the disciples (Acts 2:41).  They met every day in the temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:12), and every day the Lord added more to their number (Acts 2:27).  In the next years, through preaching (Acts 3:12) and many miracles (Acts 3:8; 5:12, 15, 19), multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number (Acts 5:14).  The point to note is that the church at first consisted only of Jews.  Pentecost and that first exponential church growth were limited to Jerusalem and Jews only.  Much of their activities were at the temple (Acts 5:20, 42), where Gentiles were not even allowed.  These thousands of believers were all Jews (Acts 6:7).

When the first Gentiles received the Holy Spirit (a few years later) the Jews were very surprised (Acts 10:45).  In the subsequent decades, when Paul worked, the most of the church and the leadership of the church still consisted of converted Jews (Acts 21:20; Galatians 2).

Consequently the church existed, to a large extent, within the Jewish culture and sphere of influence.  These converted Jews naturally retained much of the Jewish mind-set.  They did not see Christianity as a new religion.  They thought of Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah.  They viewed themselves as the faithful Jews.  In their view all Jews that do not accept Christ were unfaithful to the true Jewish religion.  Therefore the church in the beginning continued all Jewish practices, “traditions” and teachings. The early church inherited much of its teachings from Judaism.  In fact the church, in its beginning, was seen by many Christians as a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:5, 14; 28:22).   It was decades before Christians realized that the ceremonies and circumcision and sacrifices are now no longer required.

In particular, the church at first retained the Jewish view that one is justified by the works of the Law.  Judaism relied on the Law (2:17) to “be justified in His sight”.  The existence of this view in the early church is confirmed by the fact that one of the major messages from the letter to the Romans is that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (3:20, 28).  Since Paul had to spend so much time countering this error, it must have been a pervasive view in the early church.  There even was a major church council meeting (Acts 15) to discuss the claim that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  This indicates that many Christian Jews believed that converted Gentiles, to be saved, must be circumcised and consequently take part in the ceremonies and sacrifices; i.e. justification by the works of the Law.

The view that one is justified by the works of the Law resulted in the Jews relying upon the Law (2:17) for a right standing before God.  They believed that they would escape the judgment (2:3).  They believed that one finds forgiveness for sins by the mechanical process of hearing the Law read (2:13) every Sabbath and by an outward compliance (2:28) with the Law, with all its ceremonies and sacrifices.  Like the Pharisee that “was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12), the Jews were not aware of their guilt, in spite of the fact that their prophets taught that their “righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isa 64:6).  The belief that the Law justifies resulted in Jews viewing themselves as elected from the nations of the world as God’s special people to receive the promises made to Abraham, namely to inherit the world (Rom 4:13).

The view that the Law justifies also caused the Jews to believe that all other people, to whom the Law was not given, remain guilty and under God’s judgment, to suffer His wrath.  They therefore believed that to judge such people is consistent with the will of God.  As we see in gospels, at the time of Christ, Jews refused even to speak with Gentiles.  Gentiles were considered to be unclean.  Even some Christian Jews refused to associate with Gentile believers (Gal. 2:12).

In summary, the belief that they are justified by the works of the Law caused Jews to believe that they would escape the judgment, but at the same time that it is right to judge other people for doing the same things they do – exactly the behavior that 2:1-3 warns against.

This is the culture in which the converted Jews grew up in, and logically many of them retained that mind-set.  It is therefore proposed that Paul is now addressing this error, particularly amongst the Jewish Christians.

WHY DOES A PERSON CONDEMN HIMSELF

WHEN HE JUDGES IDOL-WORSHIPERS (2:1)?

A consistent theme in Romans 2 is that people are judged by their deeds (2:2, 5-8, 9, 13-16, 27).  A person therefore condemns himself when he judges sinning idol-worshipers, and does the same things.

And the Jews were sinners.  The Old Testament prophets, Jesus and Stephan confirm the view that the Jews are sinners

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning …  (John 8:44)

Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become (Acts 7:52)

What is Paul’s main concern,
that they judge or that they sin?

These Christians do two things: they judge others and they sin.  Which of these is Paul’s main concern?

If Paul is saying that they sin because all people sin, then sin would not be the big issue here.  Then Paul’s main concern would be that Christians judge other people.  Elsewhere in the letter to the Romans he does argue that all people sin (3:9; 3:23; 5:12; Gal 3:22).  The implication of that argument is that, to be justified by the law, you have to keep the law perfectly, which nobody can do.  Therefore nobody will be saved by the works of the law.

But Romans 2 does not argue that all people sin.  According to Romans 2 only some people sin, for instance:

Those who by perseverance in doing good …” will receive “eternal life” (2:7)

“Those who … obey unrighteousness” will receive “wrath and indignation” (2:8).

“The doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13).

The emphasis in Romans 3 that all people sin may seem to contradict the implication in Romans 2 that only some people sin.  It is important to understand the difference.  Romans 3 argues against justification by the works of the Law, and therefore argues that nobody is perfect, therefore nobody is justified by the works of the Law.  In contrast Romans 2 explains who will be justified, and justification does not require perfection.  “Those who by perseverance in doing good …”, who will receive “eternal life” (2:7), are not perfect.  Please refer to Romans 7 for an explanation.

Since Romans 2 implies that only some people sin, Paul’s main concern in the current verses is therefore that Christians both sin and judge.  They sin, but instead of crawling in the dust to God, they judge other people for doing the same things they do.  This interpretation is supported by verse 3, which says that these Christians “pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same”.

Paul loves them.

Why does Paul so abruptly switch from the idol-worshipers (Romans 1) to the people in the church that judge others while they do the same things?  Enemy number one in Paul’s writings is always sin.  The sins of these Christian Jews may be superficially different from the idol-worshipers.  They do not worship idols and they do not sin openly because they live in a community that displays a high regard for God’s laws.  But they sin secretly, in their minds, while they remain stubborn and unrepentant (2:5) because they believe that one is justified by the works of the Law.  This is very dangerous because a person with that view would not understand that he himself is at risk of being condemned by God and would not cry to God for forgiveness.

Paul switches to such people because he cares for them deeply and wants to warn them of their severe danger.  They would agree whole-heartedly with His assessment of the idol-worshipers in Romans 1.  If Paul would leave them with that comfortable thought, he would be doing them no favour.

 

2:4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 2:5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,

These two verses belong together because both describe what is now actually happening; in the time before the judgment.  God, through His Holy Spirit, in kindness, tolerance and patience, urges people to repent, but each time that somebody resists the Holy Spirit, the wrath, that that person will experience in the End-time Judgment, increases.

Romans 1 explains God’s wrath (1:18) on the idol-worshiping Gentiles as that “God gave them over” (1:24, 26 and 28) to the lusts of their hearts.  This means that God withdrew His protecting restraint from them so that they would do whatever they want, to their own destruction.  But the implication is also means that God protects other people by keeping them from giving themselves over to a life of sin.  When Romans 2 maintains that “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (2:4), it also points to God’s invisible keeping power in our daily existence.  The Spirit of God is continually at work in us to “convict … concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

The more that people refuse to repent, in spite of God’s efforts to bring them to Him, the more they store up wrath for themselves for the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (2:5).  Different people will therefore have different levels of wrath waiting for them.  People will be judged relative to their privileges:

Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. “Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. (Mat. 11:21-22)

But this should not be understood that God is angry with them, or that He is angrier with some than with others.  God loves them

Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord GOD, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? (Ezek. 18:23)

I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, declares the Lord GOD. “Therefore, repent and live. (Ezek. 18:32)

People will experience wrath, but not because God is angry with them.  They will experience wrath because God has to do what is best in the interest of the universe.  The judgment is a cleaning process.  God cleans His universe through the judgment process.  Some people are so fused with sin that they will also be eliminated when God eliminates sin. (See below.)

Since God is kind, tolerant and patient (2:4), He will do everything possible before He gives a person over.  He will not give a person over if there any possibility that the person would repent.


 

2:6 who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 2:7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 2:8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.

ETERNAL DEATH

A few verses earlier “death” was declared (1:32) to be “the judgment of God” (2:3) on “those who practice” (1:32) the evils listed in 1:29-31.  Now “eternal life” (2:7) is promised for those who persevere “in doing good” (2:7).  Paul often and consistently promises eternal life to God’s people (2:7; 5:21; 6:22; 8:13).  He never promises eternal life to sinners, but rather death:

  • those who practice such things are worthy of death (Rom. 1:32)
  • … all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law (2:12)
  • … sin reigned in death (Rom. 5:21)
  • … sin resulting in death (Rom. 6:16)
  • … the outcome of those things is death (Rom. 6:21)
  • … the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)
  • … the sinful passions … bear fruit for death (7:5)
  • The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption (Gal. 6:8).
  • … If you are living according to the flesh, you must die (Rom. 8:13).
  • … the mind set on the flesh is death (Rom. 8:6)

A separate article is available that deals with the life and death promises in all of Paul’s letters.  Consistent with Paul’s use, this series of articles on Paul’s writings also always refers to death as God’s judgment on evildoers.

END-TIME JUDGMENT DAY

These verses (2:5-8) elaborate on the statement in verse 2 that “the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things”, and explains that as referring to the End-Time Day of Judgment (2:5).  Romans 1 describes the “wrath of God” (1:18) in this life as God giving the idol-worshipers “over in the lusts of their hearts” (1:24, 26, 28).  By referring to “death” as the penalty of sin (1:32), the last verse of Romans 1 shifts the focus to the end-time.  2:1-5 continues this focus on the end-time wrath (2:8).

DAY OF REVELATION

It will be “the day of revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5).  Verse 16 describes it as “the day” on which “God will judge the secrets of men” (2:16).  Not only will be revealed what God’s decisions are, but also why He decided in that way.  People judge superficially, but that the end-time judgment will reveal what really is inside people.

Notice the contrast between “the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience” (2:4) and the “stubbornness and unrepentant heart” (2:5) of the people “who passes judgment” (2:1). “The riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience” will also be revealed on the end-time judgment day. It will be shown that God has revealed “His invisible attributes” (1:20) to them and has done everything possible to convince them of His love for them, but that they have refused to put their faith in Him.

The people “who passes judgment” on the idol-worshipers “suppose” (2:3) that they are right with God and therefore that they “will escape the judgment of God” (2:3).  However, the end-time “judgment of God” will prove them wrong.  They “are storing up wrath” (2:5) for that day.

God knows everything. His judgments are infinitely complex, but He wants us to trust Him. As discussed in Romans 1, he wants us to love and serve Him in complete freedom. For that reason He wants us to understand His judgments. That is why it will be “the day of … revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5).

THE TWO GROUPS

On judgment day God will render to (GNB reward) each person according to his deeds.  People will be separated into two groups according to their deeds:

For those who keep the Law by perseverance in doing good, it will be a day of glory.  They will receive immortality and eternal life.

For those who “obey unrighteousness” (2:6) it will be a day of wrath.  This will include the stubborn and unrepentant Christians that judge others for the things they do themselves (2:5).

Paul’s explanation of the judgment as based on the deeds of people is consistent with Christ’s explanation of the judgment recorded in Matthew 25.  He said that “All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another” (Mat 25:32).  The “righteous” group (v37) is those that feed the hungry and thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and those in prison (v35-40).  They will “inherit the kingdom prepared … from the foundation of the world” (v34) and “eternal life” (v46).  The “accursed ones” (v41) are the people that did not do this (v41-45).  They will go into the “eternal punishment” of “the eternal fire“ (v41).

Can you imagine you would feel if you and your loved ones are in different groups?

SUMMARY OF 2:1-8

Verses 1 to 8 form the first main section of Romans 2.

Romans 1 explains that God gives people over to their lusts if they reject His self-revelation by serving idols (1:19-24).  Romans 2:1-8 turns the spotlight to the readers of the letter, warning them that they have no excuse if they pass judgment on the idol-worshipers of Romans 1, while they do the same things.  In fact, by judging others for doing the same things they do, they condemn themselves, for God will judge people that do such things.

Paul particularly has the large number of Jewish Christians in mind when he gives this warning.  Many Jewish Christians still continued with the Jewish ceremonies and sacrifices and retained the Jewish view that one is justified thereby (by the works of the Law).  This view caused Jews to believe that they would escape the judgment (2:3).  They viewed themselves as elected from the nations of the world to receive the promises made to Abraham, namely to inherit the world (Rom 4:13).  Other people were regarded under God’s judgment. Therefore, to judge such people is consistent with the will of God.  This is the mind-set with which the converted Jews grew up, and Paul is now addressing this dangerous error amongst the Jewish Christians.

The primary purpose of 2:1-8 is to warn against judging other people for doing the things you do yourself.  To support this warning Paul explains that, in the End-Time Judgment, God will judge all people in the same way, namely by their deeds.  Jews will not receive beneficial treatment.  Their ceremonies and sacrifices will not save them.  If they do the same things as the idol-worshipers they will also receive “wrath and indignation” (2:8).

In further support of his primary message, Paul explains that God, in kindness, tolerance and patience, urges people to repent, but each time that the Holy Spirit is resisted, the wrath that the person will experience in the End-time Judgment, increases.

Judgment Day will be a day of revelation.  Not only will be revealed what God decided, but also the reasons for those decisions.  His kindness, tolerance and patience will also be revealed.  It will be shown that God has done everything possible to convince them of His love for them, but that they have refused to put their faith in Him.

 

2:9 There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, 2:10 but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 2:11 For there is no partiality with God. 2:12 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; 2:13 It is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.

The statement that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13) continues the thought that “God … will render to each person according to his deeds”.  Notice the contrast between “does evil” (2:9) and “does good” (2:10). Romans 2 does not directly mention justification by faith.  Now is added that all will be judged by the Law.  In other words, the deeds will be measured against the Law.

Since 2:9-10 contrast Jews and Gentiles, the people that are “without the Law” (2:12) are the Gentiles.  This is confirmed by 2:14 that refers to “Gentiles who do not have the Law”.  “Gentiles” refer to all people other than Jews.  It also follows that the people that are “under the Law” (2:12) are the Jews.  They are “the hearers of the Law” (2:13).  In those days very few people owned copies of the Scriptures.  People had to go to the synagogues to hear the Law being read.

The word “justified” (2:13) means to be in a right standing before God

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1)

CONTINUES TO WARN JEWS

The mind-set of judging Gentiles for things they do themselves was brought from Judaism into the church by the large number of Christian Jews.  Romans 2:1-8 warns these Jewish Christians against this mind-set.  They are warned that they will not receive preferential treatment in the judgment, but that they too will receive “wrath and indignation” (2:6) “in the day of wrath” (2:5).

The current verses for the first time in Romans 2 explicitly mention Jews (2:9-10), and contrast them to Greeks (Gentiles).  The statements that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13) and that “there is no partiality with God” implies that the Jews assumed that they would “escape the judgment of God” (2:3) through the external rituals and practices of their religion.  They assumed that God would judge them differently.  Now they are warned that all people will be judged on the same basis.  All their rituals and ceremonies and teachings count for nothing.  The only thing that matters is whether they are “doers of the Law” (2:13).  The current verses therefore actually continue the warning to Christian Jews in 2:1-8, against their mind-set of criticizing other people, while they do the same things.

NOT RELEVANT TODAY

The main point in the current verses is that “There is no partiality with God” (2:11).  This is also reflected in the phrase “Jew first and also … the Greek”, that appears twice in these verses.  It means that God will judge Jews and non-Jews in the same way.  The equality of Jew and Gentile is arguably the main message in the letter to the Romans.  Most teachers argue that justification by faith is the main point in Romans, but it is proposed here that that truth is only explained to explain the equality of Jew and Gentile.

However, the equality of Jew and Gentile is largely irrelevant to us today, living 2000 years later, because the context has changed completely:

The Jews thought of themselves as God’s special people.  They relied on the law (2:17) and thought that the mere teaching of the Law in their hearing made them “just before God” (2:13).

The church at the time was dominated by converted Jews, so much so that outsiders viewed the church as a sect of Israel.  They called it “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5, 14; 28:22).  The church therefore inherited from Judaism the view that the God will deal with them differently.

In this context Paul brought the message that all are equal before God, as far as the judgment is concerned.

Today this message is generally accepted in the church today.  Some still hold the view that God has a special end-time role and a separate future for ethnic Israel, but it is generally accepted that, in the End-Time Judgment Day, God will judge all people in the same way.  It is for that reason that this important message from the letter to the Romans is somewhat irrelevant today.

However, the message remains relevant to us because people always tend to put their trust in external things.  A new movement would emphasize true repentance of the heart, but very soon that movement will shift the focus to externals, creating a list of do’s and don’ts.  The purpose of these rules is to protect the individual from sin.  We could, for instance, make the rule that one should not watch television.  The Jews had thousands such rules.  But the problem is that these external rules and regulations very quickly become the focus of the religion.  We must therefore continually guard against out natural inclination of putting our trust in externals.

The Jewish religion became dominated by such external rules and regulations.  So was the Papacy.  For Luther, because he had to combat the very powerful Papacy, Paul’s letters, particularly the letter to the Galatians, which aggressively combats external rules and regulations, was the heart of the theology.

This remains relevant to us.  We, as church-people, should not think that our external rules and regulations will save us.  We will not be judged by the rules we create for ourselves.  We will be judged by God’s Law, and as redefined by Christ, God’s Law cuts through the inner being (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-29, 43-44, etc.).  “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil” (2:9) – also for church people.


 

2:14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 2:15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 2:16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Verses 14 to 16 are one long sentence, and deal exclusively with Gentiles.  Therefore, when verse 16 indicates that “God will judge the secrets of men”, this applies firstly to Gentiles.  But this principle also applies to all people.

The reference to “secrets” implies that these secrets will be revealed.  As stated by 2:5, this will be “the day of … revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5).  On that day the secrets of men and the judgment of God will be revealed.  The purpose of the end time Judgment Day is to clean the universe from the curse of sin.  For this purpose everything must be revealed.

On that day evil-doers will experience “wrath”, “indignation”, “tribulation and distress” (2:8-9).  Their realization of how much they have lost, and the realization that it is all their own fault, will be extremely traumatic.  People will stand before the judgment throne of the One that loves all, and they will understand that they deserve death; that God availed them each and every opportunity.  They will feel the pain they caused other people, without the ability to defend themselves with excuses.  They will see their own secrets with absolute clarity.

ARE THESE GENTILES JUSTIFIED?

Some preach that these heathens (Gentiles) that “do instinctively the things of the Law” and thereby “show the work of the Law written in their hearts” are notjustified (2:13).  They argue that these people “show the work of the Law written in their hearts” by occasional good deeds, but God’s standard is perfection, and since they are not perfect, they are not justified.  It is further argues that the only way that people can receive justification as a gift is through the gospel, which is about Christ (1:3) and His sacrifice, and since these heathens do not have the gospel, they cannot be “justified” as a gift.

But the text seems to clearly say that these heathens are justified:

for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.  14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves (2:13-14)

The word “for” with which 2:14 starts link this verse to the previous verses, and the principal thought in 2:9-13 is that God will judge Jews and non-Jews in the same way, namely that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13).  The statement in verse 14 that some Gentiles “do … the things of the Law” means that they are “doers of the Law”, and therefore justified.

It is proposed that the view that these Gentiles are not justified is based on a confusion of concepts.  “Faith” and “deeds” and “grace” and “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24) all play a role in the redemption process, but we should keep these concepts apart;

Faith” is what people must have to be ”saved from the wrath” (5:9).

Deeds” is the evidence of faith.  Faith results in “perseverance in doing good” (2:7).  Faith makes people “doers of the Law” (2:13).  Faith and deeds cannot be separated.  “Faith without works is useless” (James 2:20).

But faith does not make people perfect.  “All have sinned” (3:23).  Therefore nobody deserves to be saved.  Therefore God “justifies the ungodly” (4:5) those that have faith “as a gift by His grace” (3:24).

The redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24) refers to what Christ did through His life (5:10), death (5:6-9, 18-19; 7:4) and resurrection (4:25) that made it possible for God to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:25).  In other words, the death of Christ made it possible for God to justify “the ungodly” (4:5) “as a gift by His grace” (3:24).  For that reasons Paul states that everything we receive, including grace, apostleship, justification as a gift by faith, peace with God, reconciliation to God, righteousness to eternal life and salvation from the wrath, are all receivedthrough the obedience of the One (5:19) (1:4-5; 3:24, 5:1, 2,  9-10, 15-19, 21) or “in Christ Jesus” (6:11; 3:24).

It is proposed that the mistake people make is to fuse together “grace” and “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.  They confuse grace with the vehicle of that grace.  They then conclude that one must believe in Christ to be saved.  But, to receive the gift of justification, man does not have to understand how God gives people that gift.  As we read in the current verses, one does not even have to know the name of Christ.  How God justifies “the ungodly” is His business.  The New Testament teaches that justification is only possible “through” or “in” Christ Jesus, but even with all the light we have from the Bible, we should not presume that we understand how that exactly works.  In the future ages we will continue to learn more about God and His ways.

What we need to understand is that “all have sinned” (3:23) and are “justified as a gift by His grace” (3:24); “the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ” (5:15).

Perhaps it is the common concept of imputed righteousness that leads people to confuse the fact that God justifies people “as a gift” with the fact that people are redeemed “in Christ Jesus”.  By imputed righteousness is meant that Christ’s righteousness is attributed to Christians.  However, we do not find this concept explicitly in the Bible.  “Imputed” is a word that is used in the New Testament a few times in the KJV to explains that Abraham’s faith was “imputed” to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:11; 4:22-24; James 2:23), but the NASB replaces this famous word with “credited”.  Furthermore, nowhere in the Bible (even the KJV) does it say that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to sinners.  This concept was developed by the reformers to combat Roman works-righteousness.  Perhaps it is time to drop this old concept.  It is a man-made formula.  It is simply the way in which people explain to themselves the fact that Christ had to die to save sinners.  It may be better to say it exactly as Paul says it, namely that sinners are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24).  We should not confuse grace with the means by which God grants that grace.

The profound truth of 2:14-16 is therefore that God also give to people, that have not heard about God or His Word, the gift of justification.  The astounding truth from 2:14-16 is that one does not need to Bible to be saved.

But how is it possible that people “who do not have the Law” (2:14) can become “doers of the Law” if they never heard the Law and do not have the Law written down?  The current verses explain that Greeks can be “doers of the Law” if “the Law (is) written in their hearts” (2:15).  This implies that God writes His Law on the hearts of people.  We already saw in Romans 1 that:

that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made (1:19-20)

God has written the message of His love on the flowers of the field, and the message of His power in the miracle of creation.  In the vastness of the universe we see His greatness.  We do not need the Bible to know about God.  The Bible gives us more detail and clarity, but the creation is sufficient.  The Spirit of God is continually at work in us to “convict … concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).  This is not limited to people that have access to the Bible, because God writes His laws on the hearts of people that do not have His Word.

On Judgment Day God will reveal the secrets of men’s hearts, and many people from other religions, and even people that never heard about Christ, will be saved because they have the “Law written in their hearts”.  Even people that now hate the name of Christ can have the “Law written in their hearts”.  Once they learn who Christ really is, they will love Him.  God does not judge on externals.  He judges the fundamentals of the heart.  He understands all influences.  He seeks for love in the hearts of His intelligent creatures, because love complies with the Law.  It is on this basis that He could stop the killer, whose letters we are now studying, on his way to Damascus: He saw love in Saul’s heart.

WHAT LAW?

To explain Paul’s writings teachers differentiate between moral and ceremonial and other laws.  But Paul never explicitly made that distinction himself.  In the current verses it is said that Gentiles “show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (2:15).  This logically refers to the moral laws, because Gentiles could not have the ceremonial laws written on their heart.  However, perhaps that distinction is not valid, because the ceremonial laws have moral significance:

For instance, Abraham received circumcision as a sign of justification by faith (4:11).

And according to Hebrews the temple services (9:1), the sanctuary (9:1) the priests (9:6) and even the Law (10:1) were not reality.  These things were all “a symbol for the present time” (9:9) and “a shadow of the good things to come” (10:1).  The symbolized “Christ … as a high priest of the good things to come” (9:11),  “through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands” (9:11).

The Gentiles, not having the Law, cannot have the outward form of the ceremonies written on their hearts, but they can have the inherent meaning of the ceremonies written on their hearts, and this is what counts.

SUMMARY OF 2:9-16

These verses, for the first time in Romans 2, refer to Jews explicitly, contrasting them to “Greeks”.  “Greeks” represent all people other than Jews.

Jews believed that they will escape the judgment through the works of the Law.    They believed that they are justified by their rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies.  But 2:9-13 warns Jews against their belief that they will enjoy beneficial treatment in the judgment.  God will judge all peoples from all races in the same way, namely by their deeds.  Irrespective of whether you are a Jew or a Gentile or wealthy or poor or learned or a high ranking church official, or whatever else, God will judge you by your deeds.  In the End-Time Judgment, God will disclose the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.  All “who have sinned” will “perish”, but “the doers of the Law will be justified”.

People that have never been taught His laws can also be “doers of the Law because God writes His Law on the hearts of people.  When they do wrong, their thoughts accuse them.  When they do good, their thoughts defend them.  Thereby they become “a law to themselves” (2:14).


 

2:17 But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, 2:18 and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 2:19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 2:20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,

This is how Jews viewed themselves.  They “boast in God” (2:17) because they believe God is on their side, and against the rest of the world.

They “rely upon the Law” (2:17) because they viewed the law as their means of justification (10:4).  To warn them of this error, a major message of this letter is that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (3:20).

Verses 1-8 deal implicitly with Jews, particularly Christian Jews.  Verses 9-16 deal explicitly with Jews.  Verse 17 heightens the tension by speaking directly to Jews.  But through-out Romans 2 the focus remains in Jews.

This focus on Jews was very relevant in Paul’s day because converted Jews dominated the church and the Jewish traditions flowed strongly in the veins of the church.  But in our day the Jew/Gentile issue is perhaps irrelevant. However, the argument that Paul uses to show that Jews and Gentiles are equal before God, namely that external things will not benefit one in the judgment, is very relevant in our day.

2:21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? 2:22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 2:23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 2:24 For “THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU,” just as it is written.

The preceding verses (2:14-16) explain how it is possible for Gentiles, that do not have the law, to be “doers of the Law” (2:13), and therefore to be “just before God” (2:13).  The current verses accuse Jews—who believe they are justified by the Law—of being sinners.  Consequently, as stated earlier, the Jew “who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (2:12).  The purpose remains to warn Jews they are wrong when they assume that they are justified by the Law, and therefore will escape judgment.  Paul is helping Jews to understand their need of God’s grace.


 

 

2:25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 2:26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 2:27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?

These verses contrast keeping the law with circumcision.  In these 3 verses keeping or transgressing the law is mentioned 5 times, while circumcision or “uncircumcision” is mentioned 7 times.  These verses also contrast circumcised people with people that are “uncircumcised”.  These contrasts are combined to contrast:

  • The circumcised person that is “a transgressor of the Law” (2:25, 27)
  • The uncircumcised person that “keeps the requirements of the Law” (2:26, 27)

The circumcised person generally is a Jew, and the uncircumcised person generally is a Gentile.  These verses therefore continue the contrast of Jew and Gentile in the previous verses.

For the Jews circumcision was very important.  But circumcision was only a “sign” and a “seal of the righteousness of the faith” (4:11).  What really matters is whether one has faith which causes one to keep the Law, as confirmed by 1Corinthians 7:19:

Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. (See also Gal. 5:6 – but faith working through love)

These verses in substance repeat what was said above, namely that somebody who has been taught God’s Law, but who also is a transgressor of the law, is in God’s eyes no better than a heathen that does not have and does not care for His law.  Conversely, the person that has no knowledge of God’s law, but that keeps the Law, is a child of God.  “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13).


 

2:28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 2:29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Two things are (re)defined in these verses, namely “Jew” and “circumcision”.  Verse 28 negatively states what a real Jew and the real circumcision is not.  Verse 29 positively states what a real Jew and the real circumcision is.  Verse 28 refers to externals and states that externals do not define a real Jew and the real circumcision.  A Jew is not a real Jew only because he is circumcised.  Verse 29 refers to what goes on in the heart.  The real Jew is one whose heart has been circumcised.

The heart in the Bible is not just the organ that pumps blood through the veins.  The heart is what one loves with (5:5) and believes with (10:9).  The person that judges others is said to have an “unrepentant heart” (2:5), while the Gentiles in 2:15 have the Law written on their hearts (2:15).

The requirement that the heart must be circumcised is a familiar concept in the Bible, for instance:

So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer.  (Deut. 10:16-19)

… remove the foreskins of your heart (Jer. 4:4)

… I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised 26 … for … the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.” (Jer. 9:25)

… in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands (Col. 2:11; See also Ezek. 44:9; Acts 7:51)

ARE NON-JEWS ALSO JEWS?

One question is whether 2:28-29 includes non-Jews under the definition of a Jew.  The alternative is that these verses simply categorize Jews into two groups; true Jews and false Jews.

This question is important for the controversy in the church whether God still has a special purpose and future for ethnic Israel.  If non-Jews are included in the definition for a real Jew then the implication would be that ethnic Israel no longer has a purpose and future separate from the church.

It is proposed here that 2:28-29 should be interpreted as including non-Jews under the definition of a real Jew, for the following reasons:

1. The preceding verses are not discussing only Jews, but continually contrast Jews and Gentiles.

2. The preceding three verses state that uncircumcised people will “be regarded ascircumcised (2:26),

The letter to the Philippians also redefines circumcision, and therefore redefines the name “Jew” to include non-Jews.  It describes “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (1:1) “who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” as “the true circumcision” (3:2-3).  The people “who … put … confidence in the flesh” are “”the false circumcision”.

Circumcision was given to Abraham and to his descendants, but the New Testament teaches that Gentiles are children of Abraham, and “heirs according to promise”, which is to inherit the world (Rom 4:13), if they belong to Christ (Gal. 3:29).

The current verses therefore support the view that ethnic Israel no longer has a separate purpose and future in God’s plan.

SUMMARY OF 2:25-29

For Jews circumcision was the sign that they are God’s people and that they will inherit the promised blessings.  But, in itself, circumcision has no value.  If a Jew is a transgressor of the Law, his circumcision has become meaningless.  He will not share in the promised blessings.

In contrast, a person that does not have all those benefits, but still keeps God’s Law through the power of the Holy Spirit, is in God’s eyes a faithful Jew, and will share in the promised inheritance.  The facts that he is not circumcised and does not know God’s Laws, is of no significance.  What matters is whether one keeps God’s commandments.

CONCLUSION

The first 8 verses warn people who judge others for doing the things they do themselves.  People that judge others thereby show that they do not realize the extent of their own depravity and wickedness.  They do not realize that they themselves deserve to be condemned by God.  God, in kindness, tolerance and patience, works in people for repentance, but when people stubbornly refuse to repent, mistaken in their belief that they are right with God, they add to the wrath (anger, rage, fury) that they will face in the end time judgment day.  This is a warning to Jews, particularly for Christian Jews, that they are at risk of eternal loss if they continue to “obey unrighteousness”.

Verses 9 to 13 explicitly mention Jews and Gentiles and say that all races will be judged in the same way, namely that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:14).  The implication is that Jews thought that God would judge them differently from Gentiles and that they will “escape the judgment of God” (2:3), while non-Jews will be condemned.

Verses 14 to 23 explain that people that do not have the Law can be “the doers of the Law” because God write His Law on the hearts of people.  These verses also accuse Jews of breaking God’s Laws.  Since “the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:14) the implication is that Jews that “obey unrighteousness” are not justified.  These verses therefore continue the contrast between Jews and Gentiles in verses 9 to 13, and elaborate on the statement in 2:11 that “there is no partiality with God”.

Verses 25 to 27, by contrasting “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” continue to contrast Jews and Gentiles, and say that whether one is circumcised or not, does not matter.  What matters is whether one keeps God’s law.

Verses 28 and 29 conclude the chapter by defining the real Jew as a person whose heart has been circumcised, which means that Gentiles can also be real Jews.

The entire Romans 2 is therefore a warning to Jewish Christians.  It warns them that they will not escape God’s judgment.  It warns them that, if they break God’s Law, they will, on Judgment Day, suffer the same humiliation as Gentile sinners; they will not have an advantage when it comes to the judgment.  The entire chapter is about the equality of Jew and Gentile, and since the letter is written to the church, it is about equality of Jew and Gentile in the church.

The background against which this warning must be understood is the Jewish mindset that they are justified by the Law, and that non-Jews stand condemned because they do not have the Law.  This was also the mind-set of many Jewish Christians, and when Paul wrote, church doctrines were still determined by Jews.  It is stated repeatedly in chapters 3 and 4 that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (3:20).  Although this is not stated explicitly by Romans 2, this is actually also the message of Romans 2.

A major theme in Romans 2 is the judgment; more specifically that people will be judged according to their deeds.  “The judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things” (2:2).  “God will render to each person according to his deeds” (2:5-8).There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil … but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good” (2:9-10).  See also verses 13 to 15 and 27.  This major emphasis of Romans 2, that all people are judged by their deeds, is merely to support the main message, which is that Jews will not receive preferential treatment; all will be judged in the same way.

A further message in Romans 2 is that the deeds of people will be measured against the Law (v13-15, 27).  “It is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13).  “For when Gentiles … do instinctively the things of the Law … they show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (2:14-15).  “He who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law” (2:27)?  The Law is a synonym for “doing good” (2:7, 10).  Examples of the Law, quoted in this chapter, are from the Ten Commandments, namely stealing (2:21), adultery (2:22) and idol worship (2:22).

Justification by faith is the founding statement for the entire letter:

… I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (1:16-17)

People are justified by faith (3:28), but judged by their deeds.  Is this a contradiction?  No; as argued above, one’s deeds proves one’s faith, or the lack of it.  Therefore, even though Romans 2 does not even once mention faith, but it is still an explanation of justification by faith, because faith and deeds cannot be separated.

To: Romans Table of Contents