Any group known as the Religious Right will certainly be criticized. True to form, this group, that came to prominence in the 1970s, has been charged with self-righteousness and hypocrisy, guilty or not.
Another group definitely was guilty . . .
“Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:17-24).
Paul warned pagan Gentiles of God’s wrath (1:18-2:16). Here for the first time, he addresses Jews by name. He charges them with presuming to escape God’s wrath because they are Jews who . . .
- possess God’s Law
- enjoy a special relationship with God
- are taught by the law and so know God’s will and approve of what is morally/spiritually superior
- Because they have the embodiment of knowledge and truth in the Law, are certain they are “a guide for the blind, a light for those in darkness, a teacher of the foolish and of infants”
Then come the penetrating, prosecuting questions . . .
- You who teach others, do you not teach yourself?
- You who preach against stealing, do you steal?
- You who say people shouldn’t commit adultery, do you commit adultery?
- You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (Probably by making and selling little idols)
- You who brag about the law, do you break it and so dishonor God?
Indeed, instead of the Jews’ actions moving the Gentiles to praise God, what Isaiah prophesied of his generation (“all the day my name is despised”—Isaiah 52:5b), is also true of Paul’s: God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”.
“Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:25-29)
Circumcision externally marks every male Jew as belonging to God’s covenant people. But the Jew has come to trust in the external mark. It’s valueless without obedience to the law. Indeed, “ . . . if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.” Furthermore, if the uncircumcised obey the law, “ . . . will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”
Who are these uncircumcised who obey the law? Possibly Paul’s writing of a “what-if” situation. But I think he’s referring to actual Gentiles. Many commentators posit that these Gentiles obey the law as the result of general revelation (the revelation of God in creation). I think, however, Paul is referring to Gentiles who believe in Christ Jesus. It seems to me Paul’s next statements bear that out.
Here Paul redefines “Jew” and “circumcision”. “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly.” Furthermore, “circumcision (the mark that a man belongs to God’s covenant people) is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, not by the written code (or law).”
Paul has, almost incidentally, dropped a bombshell. A new kind of circumcision exists, and by it Jew and Gentile can belong to the covenant people of God. This “new circumcision” actually has its roots in the Old Testament from which Paul is probably drawing.
In Deuteronomy 10, Moses is rebuking the Israelites for creating a golden calf to worship. In verses 16 and 17 he urges . . .
“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” (Deuteronomy 10:16,17).
How can they purify their hearts? While it does reveal the depth of their depravity, it’s a command they can’t keep. So later he prophesies . . .
“The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Decades later the prophet Jeremiah picked up the same theme . . .
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33b).
In the middle of a dark passage about God’s wrath, then, Paul offers Jews and Gentiles the only hope for “all [who] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23b)—not “just” justification, but sanctification, not “just” forgiveness but a new, pure heart. But, if this puts Jew and Gentile on the same footing, a troubling question rises . . .
“What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” (Romans 3:1).
In other words, “If being a circumcised Jew doesn’t get us favor with God, what good is it?”
“Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say– as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—‘Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is deserved” (Rom. 3:2-8).
Gentiles have creation’s general revelation, while God has committed his very words to Jews. But this raises another question (which Paul will confront in more detail in chapters 9-11): Do the Jews (whom Paul is charging are under God’s wrath) lose God’s promises? Will God not keep the promises he made to them?
God will keep his promises (he’ll explain how in chapter 9-11). God will be true to his word, yet pour out his wrath on Jewish unrighteousness. And that reminds Paul of gossip against him: “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner? Why not ‘Let’s do evil that good may result’”? Paul won’t waste ink on more of a response than this: “They’ll get what they deserve” (my paraphrase).
* * *
We are less like the pagan Gentile (1:18 and following) and more like the self-righteous Jew. Because of our commitment to biblical morality, it’s easy for us to sit in judgment on egregious sinners. The Holy Spirit warns us as Paul did the Jews . . . “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).
Our only hope, then, is the message of the gospel which is . . .
” . . . the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith'” (Romans 1:16,17).
This is real power.
“To hope when all seems hopeless, to wait in faith when all human means are exhausted, to persevere in the midst of trials, and most of all to love others (including our enemies), involves the experience of the supernatural as much as performing the miraculous does” (Robert L. Saucy in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?).
I add “to have a pure heart” in a fallen world involves the experience of the supernatural, too. For we can be physically circumcised–just a quick flick of the knife (easy for me to say!); but we can’t cut away sin from our heart and make it pure. Only God can do that.
And God does it when we trust Jesus. In that moment, self-righteousness is removed; Christ’s righteousness is imputed. And we get a new heart. This is the power of God for salvation . . .