Romans 2. Lesson 3. Who Is "O Man"? and Other Questions.

Key Notes: The person Paul addresses and why. God's judgment. The Law written on the heart. The Conscience. Some other moral codes. Sin accumulates over time and there are no secrets.

The outline of Romans 2 is easily done. It revolves around God’s judgment, and one can simply list all the points Paul makes about it. The more interesting and difficult questions are about Paul’s important contributions to human psychology. Some parts of Romans 2, especially “the law written on their hearts,” form a major basis of our understanding of human nature.

Outline of Romans 2:

God’s Judgment is awesome. It is…

right, righteous 2:2
inevitable, and inescapable 2:3
cumulative 2:4–5
based on our actions 2:6–29
impartial toward Jew and Gentile 2:11
not dependent on knowledge of the Law of Moses 2:12
penetrating personal secrets 2:16
accomplished by Jesus Christ 2:16
part of the Gospel 2:16
independent of rites like circumcision. 2:29

2.1 In order to do an adequate commentary on the chapter, we need to know who Paul is addressing. Who is “O man”?? Some say the Gentiles (2:14). Some say the Jews (2:17). Others think Paul has a thoughtful and ethical person in mind, such as a Pharisee, or even Seneca, the Roman philosopher and critic of Roman ethics. Or Paul may be throwing a bomb into the middle of the secular world.

But first we ask who Paul says his audience is. It is none of the above. His letter is addressed “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” That must mean that Paul’s first focus is on the devout, the Christians. No doubt all the other answers are also true. But why would Paul address such a heavy, even painful load to Christians who have already escaped the judgment of God? (And he has not even met most of these people!) Do we really have to go over God’s judgment on pagans (Rom. 1–3), and Adam’s sin, (Rom. 5), and Paul’s ambivalence about the Law (Rom. 7)? Why can’t we jump right to Romans 8 and rejoice that nothing can separate us from the love of God?

I think Paul knows that the knowledge base and experience of Christians differs widely.

A young person who came to study Bible theology, opened with "I know I'm saved and that's all I care about."

Some believers know they have been "redeemed" and some may not even know the word. "Propitiation" is a strange but very rich word, and there are many other such loaded terms in Romans. I think Paul wants us to work through our experience of salvation systematically, filling the holes in our knowledge, and therefore being enabled to describe salvation to others in all of its richness and many facets.

Different parts of the message resonate with different people at different times. In Luther’s time, “justification by faith” rang a bell. The churches do not talk about that now, and so it is not part of our thinking. Regeneration-- -new life in Christ—is the theme of much preaching and has been for fifty years.

We can invert the question from "Who are you" to "Who am I?" Paul leads us to self-examination.We are people strung all along the line from hostile ignorance, to painful self-doubt, hopeful faces turned to the Light, and on to settled conviction. We can begin at any point and follow on.

2:1 Going to the text, we read that in passing judgment on others, we condemn ourselves. Paul can hear his audience groaning and murmuring about those bad people condemned in 1:18–32—“...foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Immediately he turns the tables on us. These sins that offend us are our problems as well. Jesus teaches us to beware the dangers of judging in Matt. 7:1–5. But we excuse ourselves because “we’re not that bad.” We are not “full of murder,” for instance. Paul will demolish that argument later. 3:10

2:4 We all presume on God’s kindness. We all think we have a privileged place. In an airline conversation, one man said, “I have God in my back pocket.” Another old sinner said "I wrote that Book."

2:5 The idea that judgment is cumulative is frightening. Storing up wrath? We suppose that the slate is somehow wiped clean every week or month or decade. It is awesome to realize that God held the Amalekites responsible for raids against Israel four hundred years before Saul was ordered to take vengeance on them. [I Sam. 15:1–3]

The song goes “Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live, He’ll always say, “I forgive.” Really?

Delay in judgment allows us to assume that God always forgives or has forgotten or doesn’t know or doesn’t care. That is popular religion, and it is dead wrong.

Sin accumulates. The trouble with getting older is that old sinners are worse than young sinners. The hippies of the 60’s would not trust anyone over thirty because they knew we were all corrupted and compromised by the culture. They were right. But now they have joined us in the struggle for money, sex, and power.

2:6 Judging everyone by their works? That cannot be universally true! We are saved by faith! But Paul speaks to the truly devout, those who have “patience in well-doing, seek for glory and honor and immortality,” as well as the wicked who are “fractious and do not obey the truth but obey wickedness.” To the first, God, on the basis of their works, gives eternal life. To the second, on the basis of their works, God gives wrath and fury.

James also says:

“…be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)
“…faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)

Paul elsewhere says everyone’s life-structure (an outhouse or a temple) will be judged based on the foundation and the building materials. I Cor. 3:10–15

2:11   God’s judgment is impartial. Black or white, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, all are alike. Being Jewish or Muslim or a Baptist or a Mason will not matter.

2:12–16 “When Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves…. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…. ”

Paul says that uncivilized peoples who do not have access to law still know right from wrong. They are judged by the light they have. It is the Law Written on the Heart, usually called "The Natural Law". We understand that this law is not innate, but is trained into us by our parents and teachers.

Without supervision, the two-year-old does not hesitate to bang his truck on the head of the baby next to him. The three-year-old may be tempted to strangle her baby sister in the crib. What is wrong with taking a toy from the store? Five-year-old boys have an idea to kill their fathers and marry their mothers (the Oedipus complex). Such ideas must be reproved.

The natural law is imperfect, flawed, but universal. All major and most minor societies know that we must not steal, lie, commit adultery or murder. C. S. Lewis has compiled rules from ancient civilizations that illustrate the Law Written on the Heart in the appendix of his book, "The Abolition of Man".

The natural law is not the “laws of nature,” meaning the physical constants and the observed phenomena in physics and biology. It also does not mean “following nature,” doing what comes naturally, letting our glands dictate our behavior.

The natural law is also different from the conscience. The conscience is our remarkable capacity to stand next to ourselves and evaluate our thoughts and actions. The natural law tells us approximately what is right; the conscience tells us whether we followed it or not.

There are examples of The Law Written on the Heart everywhere.
Benjamin Franklin was a moralist and wrote his own Thirteen Commandments.

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Ben Franklin kept a diary of his performance that shows he could not keep all of these rules on any given day, and sometimes accomplished only one. He demonstrates that we cannot meet the standards, even when we set them for ourselves. (In God We Trust. N. Cousins; Harpers,’58; p.27–35)

Buddhism is an ethical atheistic religion which teaches The Eightfold Way:

  1. Right belief. Follow the Four Noble Truths.
    1. Existence entails suffering.
    2. The cause of suffering is thirst for pleasure and continued life. Clinging to life begets rebirth.
    3. The way to escape from suffering and existence is to rid oneself of this thirst.
    4. To be emancipated from thirst or desire one must follow the Eightfold Way.
  2. Right aspiration. Resolve to overcome sensuality. Have the right love of others. Harm no living thing. Suppress all misery-producing desires.
  3. Right Speech. Do not indulge in loose or hurtful talk or ill will.
  4. Right Conduct. Love all creatures with the same sort of love in word and deed.
  5. Right livelihood. Choose a livelihood and the occupation of one’s time and energies consistent with Buddhist principles.
  6. Right effort. Use untiring alertness in discriminating between wise and unwise desires and attachments.
  7. Right mindfulness. Develop well disciplined thought habits in long hours spent on helpful topics.
  8. Right meditation. Attain to trance states that lead to sainthood and passage to nirvana.

Islam also is based on an ethical code ~ the Five Pillars of Islam:

  1. Repetition of the Creed. “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.”
  2. Prayer. Reserve time each day for five sets of devotion and prayer.
  3. Almsgiving. Give a free-will offering for the poor.
  4. Fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan.
  5. Pilgrimage. Once in a lifetime make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca.

To realize the difference between the revealed Law of God and any other legal code, we need only to read the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Ex.20:3)

2:16 The next point in the outline is that God’s judgment is part of the Gospel. That means God’s judgment is good news. It is good because justice will be done to the righteous and to the wicked. It is not right that Stalin should die in his bed. We think Adolf Hitler should have been tried. Ultimately, justice will be done for all.

2:17 God’s judgment will open up all the secrets. That will be very messy on one hand, but a reward for those who have done their service for God in secret. Matt. 6:1–18

2:18 Finally, God’s judgment will be done by Christ Himself. Jesus said, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father who sent Him. Jn. 5:22–23

And before the judgment, there is much help. “For because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted.” Heb. 2:18. He empowers us, leads us, coaches us, chides and encourages us, and then on the Judgment Day will tell us how we did.