Fifth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

The Danger of Judgment


Scripture reading: Lamentations 3:21-33.

Sermon text: Romans 2:1-16.

Another week, another public personality admitting adultery. It seems American voters hear this on a regular basis nowadays. Again, as many times before, the politician who fell was best known for his condemnation of other adulterers in national politics. Needless to say, the media ruthlessly exploited the story, even revealing emails from the  governor his girlfriend. It seemed the media spent more time on the affair because of the governor’s frequent condemnations of a former president who was also caught in an infidelity.

This incident may seem irrelevant to most of us here in Alabama. We’d prefer to let the South Carolina voters deal with their governor. However, as St. Paul pointed out to the Romans in chapter 2, the tendency to judge others is universal. As much as we love to quote Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount — “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) — we all find ourselves holding others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. We all see the sins of others; we point out the failures of others, all the time somehow managing to ignore our own shortcomings and sins.

St. Paul had just pointed out to the Roman church that no one stood guilt-free before God. The Gentiles had lapsed into paganism only a few generations after the catastrophic flood that wiped out all humanity but Noah and his families. The Jews may have received the Law on Mt. Sinai in 1446 B.C., but Moses dutifully recorded the idolatry going on at the bottom of the mountain while he received the Law on top of it in God’s presence. The Old Testament recorded the Jews’ return to idolatry over the centuries following their conquest of Canaan and leading to the Exile to Babylon in 586 B.C.

As St. Paul continued building his argument for God’s grace, he also systematically destroyed any hope anyone may have of escaping justice. God will one day deliver perfect justice to everyone, regardless of race, language, or religion. Only those who accept Jesus’ payment for their sins have any hope of escaping this justice.

Today’s sermon passage resumes St. Paul’s thought from the end of chapter 1, where he explained the condemnation of God on those who proudly their pride and rebellion before God. Chapter 2 begins with sobering words: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

This phrase applied to both the Jews and the Romans. First, the Jews judged all Gentiles as pagans who ignored God’s call to repentance. Even worse, the Jews considered all Gentiles as deserving of judgment for their treatment of God’s covenant people. According to the Jews, Gentiles from the Canaanites to the Babylonians to the Greeks to the Romans had abused them and deserved judgment from God for their refusal to accept Jewish supremacy in the national hierarchy.

The Romans also proved guilty of judging others. The Romans had long prided themselves on bringing law and peace to the Mediterranean world; they saw themselves as the most civilized nation in history and claimed a responsibility to spread their civilization throughout their empire. In so doing, they judged others inferior to govern themselves.

In actuality, the Romans fared worse, because their claim of “civilizing” others hid the reality of their conquests. The Roman Empire survived only so long as the legions conquered and plundered kingdoms and tribes on its borders. These conquests postponed the need for Rome to develop an industrial base and led to the collapse of the Empire in the fifth century.

This left both Jew and Roman in major trouble with God. The Jew judged the Gentiles for their paganism, even as they lapsed into idolatry; the Romans judged others as barbarians even as they brutally suppressed independent tribes and kingdoms. As St. Paul so bluntly stated, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things.”

What about within the church of Rome itself? Both Jews and Gentiles in the church found themselves admitting they, too, stood guilty of ignoring or disobeying Jesus’ command regarding judgment. Christians judged their pagan neighbors of their sinful ways, then fell into the same sins. Some in the church falsely believed that the physical world was evil while the spiritual world alone was good. They believed their salvation was secure as long as they kept their souls “pure” while they indulged in carnal sins with their bodies. Others managed to hide their sins from their congregations and deluded themselves that God would not condemn them for what remained hidden from view.

St. Paul dashed the hopes of every group. “Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” Could those who allowed themselves to indulge in the sins of their pagan neighbors expect grace?

Just maybe their success at hiding their sins served as a sign of God’s mercy. St. Paul destroyed this thought as well: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” God did not destroy sinning believers out of ignorance of their sins, but because He had mercifully given them time to repent and turn to righteous lives.

In the salvation story of the letter, St. Paul applied these arguments to both Jew and Gentile. The Roman civilization had stood for over 800 years, leading the Romans to believe God would never judge Rome for her exploitation of other tribes and kingdoms. The Jewish civilization had experienced God’s punishment before, but they still considered themselves superior to the Gentiles. They believed their special status before God would prevent God from judging them as they expected Him to judge the Gentiles.

Unfortunately for both groups, God’s judgment loomed over all humanity. Our rebellion had torn our relationship with our Creator, and our refusal to repent of our pride condemned us to an eternal separation from the God who created us. “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

It amazes me at how many ancient religions came to believe in a final judgment, when all evil would face destruction and everyone would be rewarded for their good. St. Paul told the Roman believers that the ancients had gotten this right: Judgment was coming. St. Paul reminded the Romans that when God judged humanity, “He will render to each one according to his works.” Judgment would bring deliverance to those who accepted the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection as their salvation: “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

The news was grim for those who rejected Jesus’ sacrificed on their behalf: “but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek;” both groups would face judgment, and every person in each group who chose to live in rebellion against God would face His just wrath.

Fortunately, the news was much better for believers in God: “but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”

This brings us to an important question: What about those who died in ignorance of God in the pre-Christian era, and what about those who die in ignorance of Christ in our era? According to St. Paul, “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.” The Law itself gave no protection to the Jews and no special condemnation to the Gentiles, “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” What does he mean?

Here we have a major difference in the salvation of every human. Many believe that only those who fully obey God’s law, regardless of their intent, will find salvation in the final judgment. Others believe that all those who follow the intent of God’s law — the “spirit” of the law — will find salvation.

This is a critical question in human history. The Old Testament recounts numerous Gentiles who demonstrated fellowship with God outside the Covenant of Mt. Sinai: Melchizedek (Genesis 14), Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 2), and Ruth (read her book!) all demonstrated faith in God. The prophet Jeremiah was rescued from certain death by Ebed-mulch, an Ethiopian eunuch who was blessed by Jeremiah for his faith. Even one of the proudest men in history, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, declared in his last statement recorded in Scripture: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”

This fact also spelled doom for countless Jews who, throughout their national history, had falsely believed that merely observing the rituals of the Law would guarantee their standing before God. Read the books of the Prophets to see the results of a society that  allowed its worship to fall into nothing but ceremonies.

We find another crucial point in this passage. Notice the last word: “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”

“Justified:” this word plays a key role in this book and in St. Paul’s understanding of our salvation. The Greek verb for “justify,” “dikao,” is defined “to cause someone to be in a proper or right relation with someone else” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Editors, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains). St. Paul used this verb 14 times in the book of Romans.

According to St. Paul, every human find himself guilty before God. Remember, the standard is perfection, and none of us has ever met the standard; only Jesus lived a perfect life, and we killed Him for it. However, by His grace, God declares that we have a right relationship with Him; we have the right to stand before Him in judgment and hear ourselves declared innocent in spite of our guilt. We do not earn this right; God gives it to us only by His grace. He extends His grace to everyone who believes in His mercy, both Jew and Gentile. Those who believe in God’s grace demonstrate faith in that grace; we believe that God keep His word and extend His grace to us.

This helps explain St. Paul’s belief that even Gentiles could find salvation outside the Law: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Every person who has ever trusted God for their deliverance from judgment has found Him faithful in death, leading to his everlasting life.

This passage carries some ominous overtones for us today.

For one thing, far too many believers find ourselves like many in the Roman church; we feel a right to judge others for sins we commit ourselves. Like the Roman Christians, we tend to think that we can judge others as long as we keep our own sins hidden. It would do well to re-read the last line of the passage: “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Christian, every secret sin you carry with you will be revealed in the day of judgment. Jesus Himself said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Luke 12:2). Only true repentance in this life will save you from the exposure of what you do in secret.

I confess myself guilty in this regard. I have a serious warning for believers who, like me, were born again early in life. In my early years as a Christian, I could freely condemn many of my friends for falling into sins that I had yet to face. I could confidently say, “I would never do anything like that person!” Then, as my life has unfolded, I’ve often found myself facing the same temptation as the one I condemned and then found myself scrambling to recover when I, too, fell. If age has given me anything, it has given me the wisdom of humility regarding my own sinful nature. I praise God for His mercy and grace He has shown me in my life. Now, when I see someone fall, I’ve learned to pray that God will show grace to the sinner and give me the grace and humility to love them rather than judge them.

I also see another ominous message in the passage. Note again the promise of judgment: “He will render to each one according to his works.” Lest someone think he can bargain with God at the judgment because of a good work here and there, we must remember the standard at the judgment: Perfection. God is holy, and He expects holiness from His creation. What work will you try to perform to put God in your debt when He created the entire universe? How will you do anything remotely comparable? Only 1 action on your part will do: believe the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. Confess Jesus as Lord of your life, believing in His resurrection, and “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). No other action on your part can guarantee God’s grace come the judgment.

This applies to everyone, including those in our lives who need to hear of their desperate standing before God and who need our love instead of our judgment. Christian, God loves those in our lives who need to hear the gospel as much as He loves those of us who have accepted the gospel. This also applies to those in our communities who may not meet our own standards. We have a responsibility to accept everyone into our congregations and then into the Church as they repent of their sins, confessing Jesus as Lord of their lives. We, too, once stood condemned before God; we have no right to turn others away from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lastly, we believers should rejoice in our own standing before God. He has justified us through our confession of His Son as Lord. This should lead us to praise Him, both in our worship and in our lives. People of God, we stand delivered from judgment! We owe Him our worship and our praise.

As we continue in this book, I encourage you to examine your life. Have you something you must overcome? Repent and receive God’s forgiveness. Has God already forgiven you and brought you to salvation? Rejoice, in your worship and in your life. God deserves your praise for your justification and your salvation.