Who is Paul addressing here?
As I read this chapter I cannot help but think Paul is writing to Gentile Christians within the Roman church who have been in sin and yet condemn their fellow Christians for the very acts they themselves are doing unashamedly. I just don’t see how Paul would be writing to people who wouldn’t be reading this letter (e.g. non-Christian Gentiles). It would seem by default that his audience would be a Christian one and yet his words in Romans 1 seem to be toward people who do not know God. It would appear that those he addresses in chapter 1 are not Christians, or at least one would hope, because of the seriousness of their sin condition and total rebellion (including the exchanging of natural sexual relations for unnatural ones – 1:27). Why would he bring all of this up? Probably because the Gentile Christians at Rome have come out of exactly this type of background and thinking before coming to Christ.
In 2:1 he writes, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever pint you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Maybe Witherington gets this right when he writes, “V. 5 seems to reaffirm the conclusion that Paul in the main is addressing non-Christian Gentiles here (but with an implicit warning to Christian Gentiles who act the same way). (BWIII, Romans, 81). This would make Paul hypothetically addressing people not in his audience in order that those who are listening might perk their ears at Paul’s warning. I am not sure that I buy that. It seems to me the reason they are without excuse when they judge others is because they have struggled with the same things (e.g. the list in 1:28-32).
Hypocrisy and the Judgment of God
Much of the content of the remaining verses have to do with the failure of the Gentiles and the Jews to do an adequate self-examination prior to examining the lives of others. The Gentiles are pointing fingers at immorality when the reality is they are condoning those very acts by the way they live (2:1-5). The Jews are guilty of hypocrisy because they hold up the standard of the law and find the Gentiles guilty for failing to keep it when they never have kept it in its entirety (2:12-24). The last word is that both the Jews and the Gentiles have placed the emphasis in the wrong place. God is not desiring people who are self-righteous and not in need of the love and mercy of God. God wants us to recognize our own failure at doing what is right so that we will understand our need for Him and result in having circumcised hearts (2:25-29). Have a look at the story Steve Furtick tells about two ministers that goes well with this point and the standards we use to judge.
What We Do Actually Matters
Another valuable take home point in this chapter is that our actions do have consequences. We often get so caught up in talking about the grace of God and the evils of works righteousness that we don’t give a fair shake to the whole of Paul’s theology on this point. How about this verse, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom 2:7-8). That is a difficult passage to reconcile with many other parts of Paul’s theology. But to me the point is our actions matter. Don’t think you can abuse the grace of God because it will find you out. Don’t think that you have checked the box of circumcision or baptism or taking the Lord’s Supper each week and so you can go along your merry way scott free. It doesn’t work like that. You are baptized? Great. How is your heart today? Are you seeking self or God? Oh, but God will forgive…sure he will when you do what Paul said in verse 4-5 – “Repent.” Paul is talking to unrepentant Christians here. They have done all the right things. They have checked all the boxes and yet they are still warned of God’s wrath.
I want to share a particularly spot on quote by BWIII in his Romans commentary – “The message is, then, not only about the impartiality of God, though that is emphasized, but also about the fact that all humans are equally in need of mercy in view of their sin, including particularly those Jews who should have been teachers to the blind but in fact proved to be less than good exemplars of what the Law required. Having the Law is no guarantee of doing the Law, and merely having it is no protection against God’s judgment on disobedience, for all human behavior will be judged by God. Even being a Jewish teacher does not exempt one from God’s righteous judgment on sin and so from the need to hear and heed the gospel proclamation,” 85
Those are powerful words for those of us who have been in the church for decades. We have no claim to moral superiority over others because we have to recognize our own need for grace and mercy from God. When you understand that it is impossible to hold sin over the head of a brother or sister in Christ. Those are also powerful words because we live in a culture that says do whatever you want and don’t even worry about the consequences. If it makes you happy, do it. Don’t think about anyone else. Just do what you want. Be your own standard. You set the rules. God has been left hanging.
Again, we are hearing one side of the conversation and so we make assumptions about what Paul must have been addressing to have written what he did. If you heard me say on the phone “Well, it’s about 65 degrees and sunny.” you could imply that I had been asked the question, “How is the weather.” When Paul writes, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised (there were Jews, by the way, who underwent an “uncircumcision” process in order to blend in with the broader society better – See Fergusson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 405 or 1 Macc. 1:13-15, 2 Macc 4:10-17). We infer that the Jews must have been holding circumcision as a trump card over the Gentile Christians, perhaps in order to reestablish their roles as leaders in the church (for more on the background of this see this post). Why circumcision? In Genesis 17:9-14 God established circumcision as an everlasting sign of his covenant with Abraham. So when did God say his people no longer had to be circumcised? God doesn’t. Paul comes to the conclusion (after the council at Jerusalem and their decision not to bind circumcision on the Gentiles in Acts 15) that what God was really after was the heart all along and so the Gentiles who turn to God, even though not circumcised, will be made righteous by God through the Gospel of Christ even though the outward sign of the covenant with Abraham is not made evident in their flesh. Now how the whole “circumcision, of the heart, by the Spirit” works I am clueless. The only guess I have is that Paul’s theology of the indwelling of the Spirit is such that he sees the Holy Spirit as a commonality between Jewish and Gentile Christians and as such unites them all even though they are from diverse backgrounds because God doesn’t show favoritism (2:11). See also Gal 3:14 & 5:18