The Letter to the Romans



5. Judged by truth and deeds

Romans 2:1-11


Paul follows his "gave them over" discourse describing God's current wrath upon men's wickedness by introducing the subject of God's judgment. He makes the point that no one, not even one who calls himself a believer in Christ, can judge another's eternal outcome or standing before God. Paul is bold enough to say that at whatever point someone judges another, he is guilty of the same thing and is condemning himself. Jesus cautioned that with whatever measure we judged some else, we would be judged with that same measure. (Matthew 7:1-2)

The point of this caution against judging is not that we fail to confront sin but that we do not smugly label a brother or sister in Christ as a sinner, imagining ourselves to be superior because we would never do what he or she is doing. Further, it is a caution about assuming to know whether or not a brother or sister caught in sin is eternally lost or not. The fact is, as Paul has just pointed out, that we are equally doomed to eternal destruction. We are born dead in sin, spiritually cut off from the Father. No sinful act is more heinous than another; every transgression flows from our naturally dead condition. While we all have different weaknesses, none of us is immune to any sinful act. Our sinful flesh is still with us even though the Holy Spirit has given us new hearts. We can still be seduced away from living by the Spirit to gratifying the temptations of our sinful flesh.

As Christ-followers reconnected to God by the Holy Spirit, we are expected, however, to be discerning and to recognize and confront sin. Right after he told people not to judge or they would be judged, Jesus told the same listeners, "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs." (Matthew 7:6) He clearly cautions people not to persist in presenting truth to people who refuse to accept it. Further, Jesus cautioned against false prophets. "Watch out" for them, he commanded; "by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:15-16) Jesus himself told his followers to be on guard against deception and evil and spiritual insensitivity.

Paul further emphasized our obligation to be discerning. He reminded the church in Corinth not "to associate with sexually immoral people-not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral," but meaning professed Christ-followers who are immoral. (1 Corinthians 5:9-10) He further expounded to this same church about the danger of false apostles, comparing them to Satan himself who masquerades "as an angel of light". (2 Corinthians 11:13-14) Paul grew intense when he warned the young Gentile Christians about the danger of the Judaizers. "Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh," he wrote to the church at Philippi. (Philippians 3:2) "Test everything," he wrote to the Thessalonians. "Avoid every kind of evil." (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22)

John addressed spiritual discernment by pointing out the hallmarks of true Christianity as opposed to the deceptive teachings Paul warned against. "Dear friends," he wrote, "since God so loved us, we also ought to love one anotherif we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." (1 John 4:11-12)

As Christ-followers we are not to judge another's eternal fate; we are, however, to be discerning, to reject deceptive and evil teaching and practices, and to recognize sin and warn brothers and sisters we see succumbing to it. We are also to acknowledge our own innate sinfulness which places us in exactly the same eternally doomed condition as the most hardened criminal. We cannot judge another person's fate because we are intrinsically in the same condition; declaring another to be a sinner would be like the pot calling the kettle black. Only the saving grace of Jesus rescues us from the certainty of eternal punishment.


Judgment Based on Truth

In contrast to our hypocritical tendency to deem another person's sin more heinous than our own, God judges each of us according to truth. He sees clearly our hopelessly degraded condition, and his judgment of us is just. The truth God sees, however, is not just the truth of our sinfulness; he also sees the truth of our response to Jesus. The truth of God's all-seeing and all-knowing is embedded richly in both the Old and the New Testaments. When Hannah went to the temple to pray for a son, she magnified God and his glory. Don't keep talking arrogantly, she prayed; the "Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed." (1 Samuel 2:3) He knows not only what we do but also what motivates us and what owns our loyalty. When Samuel went to anoint Saul's successor as Israel's king, he was ready to honor one of David's striking older brothers. God stopped him and told him that man looks on outward appearances; God, however, looks at hearts. (1 Samuel 16:7)

Psalm 44:20-21 declares that if we turn our loyalty away from God, even if we think we are doing so quietly, God would know "since he knows the secrets of the heart." In Psalm 139:23-24, the psalmist asks God to search his heart and thoughts to see if there is any "offensive way" in him and pleads that God will lead him in the "way everlasting".

Jesus told the Pharisees, when they sneered at his teaching about not being able to serve both God and money, that they justified themselves in the eyes of men, but God knew their hearts. "What is highly valued among men," Jesus said, "is detestable in God's sight." (Luke 16:15)

Paul emphasized God's intimate knowledge of us in Romans 8:27 when he wrote that God, who searches our hearts, knows the mind of the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints. In other words, the Spirit of God prays for us when we don't know exactly what to pray for ourselves. God knows our hearts and our desires and our commitments and struggles, and the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, God's children, when our own thoughts are confused and even unaware of our true needs. Such reassurance confirms Paul's further assertion in Galatians 2:6, that God does not judge us by external appearances.

Jesus says, in Revelation 2:23, "I am he who searches minds and hearts; I will repay each of you according to your deeds."

God's judgment of us is based on truth, not on what we pretend to be or on what we hope to accomplish. He knows the essence of US, and his judgment is just because it is based on the truth, the whole internal reality of our hearts that no one else, not even we ourselves, can clearly see.


God's Patience

Paul also makes the point in this passage that some have shown contempt for God's patience and kindness in delaying judgment. This patience and kindness, he points out, is what has led them and others to repentance. God is holy and good, and evil cannot be in his presence and survive. God himself abhors evil and has prepared eternal punishment for the unrepentant. Many Jews, however, even among those converted to Christ, felt themselves to be superior to the Gentile converts to Christianity. They believed themselves to be inherently superior to any other people, and they had trouble learning to accept the reality that God has equally saved all people who claim the sacrifice and name of Jesus for their sins.

When Paul was preaching in Athens, he told his audience that although for generations people had worshiped gods of gold, silver or stone, God had "overlooked such ignorance". Now, however, he has revealed the person he has appointed to judge the world, and he has confirmed this appointment by the singular event of raising Jesus from the dead. Now, Paul said, is the time to repent of the godlessness of the past. (Acts 17:29-31)

In Romans 3:25-26 Paul explains that in his forbearance, God had left the sins of people in the past unpunished. He says God left these sins unpunished in the past "to demonstrate his justice at the present time" by revealing Christ and justifying those who have faith in him. If he hadn't left those former sins unpunished while he waited for Christ to change history, God would have had to destroy the sinners. Because, however, he planned to send Jesus, he knew that the penalty for sin would ultimately be paid. All those who trusted in God before Jesus came were justified by their faith when He finally died and rose again. God's forbearance gave life to people who otherwise had no hope of eternity.

Later in Romans Paul again illustrates God's redemptive patience. He shows patience for "the objects of his wrath" in order to "make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy." This patience is for the purpose of bringing about repentance. (Romans 9:22-24)

When Paul wrote to Timothy he used himself as an example of God's redemptive patience. God's patience with him, "the worst of sinners," he said, was for the purpose of example for others who would believe and become changed. (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

Peter echoed the same theme when he said that God is not slow but patient, not wanting anyone to perish. The Lord's patience, he emphasized, means salvation. (2 Peter 2:9:14-15)

In Romans 2, Paul is making the point that no one has the right to feel superior to anyone else. God's patience with each person and people group is not an indication of God's tolerance. Quite the contrary; God is not tolerant of evil and disobedience. Rather, God's patience is for the purpose of drawing people's hearts to him and of giving each person the opportunity to become a child of God.

Paul concludes his discussion of God's patience, however, with the warning of the coming "day of God's wrath." At the end of the age when Jesus returns to judge the earth, God will finally punish all evil. Those who have been unrepentant in spite of God's patience will finally be eternally punished for their unbelief. No one can rightly interpret God's patience and mercy as permissiveness or tolerance. God's purpose is to save people, but he will not spend eternity in the presence of evil. God's glory will ultimately destroy evil. We disrespect God's holiness if we respond to God's kindness and grace with a sense of entitlement or casual acceptance. God's patience is in reality offering us safety from the eternal consequences of our birthright of sin.


Judgment According to Deeds

Paul states in Romans 2:7-8 that those who persist in doing good, thereby seeking "glory, honor, and immortality", will receive eternal life. Those who are "self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil", on the other hand, will inherit "wrath and anger".

Paul is not, in these few verses, contradicting his larger point that we are saved by grace apart from the law. He is emphasizing, however, that if it were possible for a person to do good and thus fulfill the law, he would thus be saved. Given the fact that humanity is incapable of doing good in its inherently sinful state, good deeds must be based on something besides one's own energy and will.

Jesus gave insight into what qualified or disqualified deeds as worthy. In Matthew 7:21-23 he explained that not everybody who calls him "Lord" will enter the kingdom. Only those who do the will of His Father will be admitted. He elaborated that many will say to him that they have prophesied, performed miracles, and driven out demons in his name, but He will say, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!" Jesus reemphasized this idea in Matthew 25:34-46 when he said that the "goats" would be on his left, separated from the sheep who would go to eternal life. The goats would be lost because they had not fed, clothed, visited, and cared for Jesus through the needs of their brothers in Christ. In Luke 13:23-27 Jesus also designates evildoers not as people who did terrible things but as people who claim they "ate and drank" with him, yet Jesus does not know them.

Works that look holy-even supernatural-do not verify an intimate relationship with Jesus. What matters is a person's surrender and loyalty to Jesus as a heart level. Knowing Jesus is the intimate relationship that comes from the new birth, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Without that, our deeds can be altruistic and wonderful, but we do not know Jesus, and he does not know us. Without the new birth, we cannot enter the kingdom. (see John 3:5)

Paul clarifies the issue of works in Galatians 5:16-25. In verses 19-21 he lists behaviors that are acts of sinful flesh. Things such as "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like" stem from our inherent sin. The interesting fact with which Paul follows this list is that the opposite of these evil behaviors is not "good behaviors". Instead, the fruit of the Spirit, the opposite of works of the flesh, are qualities of character, not good deeds. The mark of the Holy Spirit in a person is the presence of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." These are the "works" that will yield eternal life because they are not the works of our own efforts. They are miraculous; they are the result of the Holy Spirit indwelling and changing our hearts.

In Ephesians 5:17-21 Paul further explains how a life will look if one is filled with the Spirit. First he reminds his readers not to be foolish; he admonishes them not to become drunk with wine but rather to be filled with the Spirit. "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual sons," he writes. "Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Works that reveal eternal life are works that can only come from the Holy Spirit. Songs and heart worship can only come from the inspiration of God. It is the work of the Spirit which God deem worthy. People who do good without a heart commitment and a personal relationship and surrender to Jesus are not doing works which God will consider good. They are serving themselves by trying to be good. True good works flow from the Holy Spirit's impulses, and they have nothing to do with gratifying oneself or with ensuring salvation. They flow from security instead of working toward security.


Self-Seeking, Refusing Truth, and Wickedness


In verse 8 Paul links "self-seeking" with rejecting truth and following evil. At first glance, these three seem disjunct. They actually have a core of commonality, however, upon examination. In Isaiah 30:9-11, the prophet records a graphic description of self-indulgent Israel and her desire to remain untroubled and unconfronted with the truth about her condition. He describes them as rebellious and deceitful children who are saying to the prophets (including himself), "See no more visionsGive us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophecy illusionsStop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel."

Israel wanted to be comfortable, and the Israelites wanted to do what they desired. They didn't want to be confronted with their sin or with what God expected of them; as long as they didn't have to hear those things, they could avoid thinking about them. The prophets made them feel guilty, and they didn't want any guilt. They were willing to refuse to hear the truth in order to pamper themselves. In fact, they were willing to refuse to deal with God in order to maintain their self-indulgence. They were completely willing to surrender themselves to evil, the absence of God's presence and influence, in order to pursue their own desires.

This desire not to know is a form of self-deception. A person is deceived not only by buying a convincing argument or false teaching. A person can be deceived internally by his or her own reluctance to know the truth about himself. In attempting to avoid the pain of truth, people often create artificial "realities" that exist only in their own minds. No real truth can penetrate these internal fortresses because truth would expose the person to his or her own culpability and sin.

The New Testament is full of caution against deception. Paul wrote to Timothy that the time was coming when people wouldn't tolerate sound doctrine. "Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3-4) Nothing has changed since Isaiah prophesied to Israel. People still try to deceive themselves in order to avoid accountability and the responsibility of surrendering to God and living a holy life by his power.

Deception underlies much of our vulnerability to evil and to rejecting truth. Further, our desire to comfort and soothe ourselves, to have a "good life" and to live the way we think we want to live-in other words, our tendency to indulge ourselves-makes us vulnerable to deception. Jesus warned that his people would need to be on guard against deception. "Watch out that no one deceives you," he said in Mark 13:5; he warned that many would come in his name claiming to be him and would deceive many. He also warned that there would be false prophets who would deceive many (see Matthew 7:15 and 24:24).

Paul warned the Thessalonian church that the antichrist would display the works of Satan while pretending to be doing the works of God. He will do "counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, every sort of evil that destroys those who are perishing," The perishing, Paul continues, are being lost for one simple reason: they refuse "to love the truth and so be saved." Because of their resistance to embracing truth, God will allow them to be massively deceived by an illusion which he ordains for them to experience: the essence of evil masquerading as the power of Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)

In Romans 1:25 and 28 Paul emphasized again the fact that deception and depravity are the results of people refusing the truth. By exchanging the truth of God for a lie, people become victims of their own depraved minds. They fall into bondage to their own self-deception and self-indulgence.

In chapter 16 of Romans Paul directly links false teaching and divisive behavior with self-indulgence. He warns the Roman Christians to stay away from people causing divisions in the church as well as from those putting up obstacles to the gospel that they had already learned. Adding requirements and overlaying the gospel with various forms of legalism and works is a deception. People who promote these things are not serving Christ, Paul asserts, but their own appetites. (Romans 16:17-18)

At the core of refusing truth and falling prey to wickedness is deception which has its roots in self-indulgence and resistance to surrender. Ultimately, people refuse to accept the truth of the gospel because they would rather maintain control over their lives and gratify their desires than surrender in exchange for peace and freedom. Self-indulgence is, on the bottom line, the opposite of truly doing good. People ultimately live either for themselves or in submission to God. Outwardly, an observer may have difficulty distinguishing between the works of a person submitted to God or of a person indulging themselves through altruism. Inwardly, though, God sees the difference. The motive of the heart is what distinguishes between good and bad deeds. A surrendered, willing heart is the opposite of a self-protective and self-centered heart.


Trouble and Glory

Paul ends this section of his letter by saying that those who reject the truth and do evil will experience "trouble and distress". Conversely, "everyone who does good" will receive glory, honor, and peace. These things will be true "first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."

The Jews were the people to whom God entrusted the law and the prophets. It was through the laws, ceremonies, and prophecies that God revealed the coming Messiah and also began to reveal the final coming of Christ when he would establish his kingdom on earth. The Jews were the first people designated as God's chosen ones. Amos brought this word of the Lord to Israel: "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins."

Israel was the first people-group to whom God gave his blessings and his commission to represent him to the world. God revealed himself to Israel ; he entrusted them with truth, details of his plans, and intimacy. God's special revelation to Israel preceded his large-scale inclusion of the Gentiles by nearly 2,000 years. Because of Israel's greater, long-term responsibility, God's blessings and also his wrath in the case of rejection and disobedience come first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

In Luke 12:47 Jesus explained that those who know their master's will but refuse to do it "will be beaten with many blows." The one who does not do his or her master's will and does things that deserve punishment "will be beaten with many blows."

"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48)

The Jews had been entrusted with the words and will of God for centuries before the Gentiles shared that trust. They had "been entrusted with much," and because of that privilege, they reaped the firstfruits of God's corporate blessing as well as his corporate wrath.

Trouble and wrath will come to those who "do evil", while glory and honor will come to those who "do good". The difference between these two groups of people is the the condition of being born again or not having that new life. Those with the indwelling Holy Spirit transforming their yielded spirits will do the works of God. Those who resist the radical work of the Spirit and refuse to yield their hearts to Jesus may do altruistic deeds and serve many people, but their deeds are not counted as works of faith. They are works of the flesh, born of a person's own desires and attempts to be good. To such people Jesus will say, "I never knew you." To those who allow the Holy Spirit to transform them, however, Jesus will say, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." (Matthew 25:34)



God is calling you to allow him to reveal to you the areas in your life where you cling to feelings of superiority, condescension, or private sin. He is asking you to release to him the situations he has been quietly bringing to your attention. He wants to transform your heart with his love and forgiveness, but you must release the things you hold close before God can heal those places in you.

Let Jesus enlighten your heart with his truth. Let him reveal the ways you have deceived yourself, and allow him to convict you of your real need of him and of his forgiveness and healing. No matter how moral your life may appear to others, if your good deeds spring from your own motives and not from the Holy Spirit, they are of no eternal value.

Jesus wants you to allow him to be your only identity. Release to him all the things you treasure, the things you value and which shape your life. It's a frightening thing to let go of everything in order to surrender to Jesus, but the outcome is more than worth the risk. Tell Jesus that no matter what it costs you, you want to follow him and be identified with him. Ask him to take you and to fill you with himself, to fill the empty places in your heart with his Spirit, and to comfort your heart with the peace of his eternal presence.

Let Jesus truly make you into his temple, a place where he resides. Ask God to give you your true identity-child of God-and to be everything you need.

He is faithful; he will complete the work he has begun in you, and he will never leave you. Nothing can separate you from the love of Jesus, and your life in him will never be meaningless.

Praise God for planning for our salvation from the creation of the world. Praise Jesus for being the Lamb slain for our sins from the creation of the world. Praise the Holy Spirit for connecting our spirits to eternity, for filling us with the presence of the God of the universe. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that nothing in our lives is wasted, and praise God for redeeming everything we submit to him!

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 14, 2003.
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