The Condemnation of the Moralist

‘The key text in this passage is 2:11: ‘For God does not show favoritism’. God holds all peoples accountable. Those who sin ‘apart from the law’ (Gentiles) will be judged apart from the law, while those who sin ‘under the law’ (Jews) will be judged by the law (2:12).’ (Kruse)

2:1  Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things.

‘Jewish readers and perhaps even moral Gentiles such as Stoics would have found little discomfort and much to applaud in Paul’s castigation of Gentile humanity. The morally upright have a sharp eye for the faults of the wicked.’ (Edwards)

We may reasonably suppose that such self-righteous persons would have applauded what Paul has said about ‘outsiders’ in Rom 1:18-32.  But now he drops his bombshell: ‘You are no better!  You are subject to the same condemnation!’  Paul’s therefore connects the two groups: ‘Because all lie under God’s condemnation, therefore that includes you!’

Paul now turns from a consideration of the world generally (Rom 1:18f), and the Gentile world in particular (Rom 1:20-32) – guilty and without excuse – to the self-righteous moraliser, Rom 2:1-16.

In Lk 18:11 Jesus spoke of the same kind of self-righteousness.  See also Mt 7:1.


Who is this judgemental person?
Some think that Paul is directly addressing some in the Roman church: ‘When Paul’s letter was read in the Roman church, no doubt many heads nodded as he condemned idol worshippers, homosexual practices, and violent people. But what surprise his listeners must have felt when he turned on them and said in effect, “You have no excuse. You are just as bad.”‘ (Life Application)

But it is better to recognise that Paul’s literary technique at this point is that of a ‘diatribe’.  He addresses an imaginary person (he is not necessarily thinking of any of the Roman Christians, for he has a high opinion of their spiritual status, Rom 1:8: 15:14.  ‘Paul is explaining for the benefit of his audience that people who know what God requires but do not carry it out are left exposed to the righteous judgment of God.’ (Kruse)

But is this imaginary person a Jew, or a Gentile?

Some commentators regard this critic as representing any person – Jew or Gentile – who aspires to a higher standard than that described in Rom 1:18-32. This is supported by Paul’s general ‘whoever you are’, by the reference to this individual as a ‘man’, v3, and by the reference to Jew and Gentile in v9f.  So Stott, who writes: ‘[Paul’s] main emphasis is clearly seen in his turning from the world of shameless immorality (1:18–32) to the world of self-conscious moralism. The person he now addresses is not just ‘O man’ but ‘O man who judges’ (1, 3), ‘O critical, moralizing human being’. He seems to be confronting every human being (Jew or Gentile) who is a moralizer, who presumes to pass moral judgments on other people.’

Morris thinks that Rom 1:18-32 refers primarily to Gentiles, and Rom 2:1ff primarily to Jews (specifically, those beset by self-righteous pride).

Many interpreters, however, think that this imaginary character is a Jew.  So (with varying degrees of confidence) Cranfield, Mounce, EBC, F.F. Bruce, Kruse, Edwards, Osborne and many others.

F.F. Bruce says that such self-righteousness pride could be found in the Gentile world and well as the Jewish world.  ‘We know that there was another side to the pagan world of the first century than that which Paul has portrayed in the preceding paragraphs. What about a man like Paul’s illustrious contemporary Seneca, the Stoic moralist, the tutor of Nero? Seneca might have listened to Paul’s indictment and said, “Yes, that is perfectly true of great masses of mankind, and I concur in the judgment which you pass on them—but there are others, of course, like myself, who deplore these tendencies as much as you do.”‘  Even so, Bruce thinks that Paul is thinking here of a Jewish critic (this will become especially clear from v17 onwards).

‘It is the inevitable reaction of all moral and religious people, all those who would agree with the preceding diagnosis of the world’s condition, to suppose that these words exempt them from the wrath of God. The clear and simple purpose of this next section is to close off that imagined escape.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘The underlying theme of this section, then, is the judgement of God upon self-appointed judges. His judgement is inescapable, vv1-4, righteous, vv5-11 and impartial, vv12-16.’ (Stott)

‘Paul uncovers in these verses a strange human foible, namely our tendency to be critical of everybody except ourselves. We are often as harsh in our judgement of others as we are lenient towards ourselves. (Stott)

‘If our critical faculties are so well developed that we become experts in our moral evaluation of others, we can hardly plead ignorance of moral issues ourselves.’ (Stott)

God’s judgement:-

  1. Is always according to truth and reality, v2.
  2. Is concerned with men’s works, v6.
  3. Is tempered by the light of revelation received, v12-15.
  4. Extends to the secrets of the heart, v16.
  5. Is administered through Christ, v16.
2:2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things.
2:3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? 2:4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?


  1. the goodness of God leads to it, Rom 2:4
  2. the authority of God commands it, Acts 17:30
  3. the compassion of God waits for it, 2 Pet 3:9
  4. the grace of God grants it, Acts 11:18
  5. the love of god rejoices over it, Lk 15:7

(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students)

w Ps 51:4. ‘We know that, in quoting Scripture the apostles often used freer language than the original, since they were content if what they quoted applied to their subject, and therefore they were not over-careful in their use of words.’ (Calvin, Romans)

God’s kindness is intended to lead to repentance, not presumption. ‘It is intended to give us space in which to repent, not to give us an excuse for sinning.’ (Stott) See Eze 33:11; 2 Pet 3:9.

‘When the dove was weary she remembered the ark and flew into Noah’s hand at once. There are weary souls who know the ark, but will not fly to it. When an Israelite had slain, inadvertently, his fellow, he knew the city of refuge, he feared the avenger of blood, and he fled along the road to the place of safety. But multitudes know the refuge, and every Sunday we set up the signposts along the road, but yet they don’t come to find salvation. The destitute waifs and strays of the streets of London find out the night refuge and ask for shelter; they cluster around the workhouse doors like sparrows under the eaves of a building on a rainy day. They piteously crave for lodging and a crust of bread. Yet crowds of poor benighted spirits, when the house of mercy is lighted up, and the invitation is plainly written in bold letters, “Whosoever will, let him turn in here,” will not come, but prove the truth of Watts’s verse:

Thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come.’


2:5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed!

The day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed – ‘But must we wait till then?  Is there no way in which God’s wrath against evil is revealed now?  There is, according to Paul.  The first is in the progressive deterioration of a godless society, by which God “gives over” to their uncontrolled depravity of mind and conduct those who deliberately smother their knowledge of God and of goodness, Rom 1:18-32.  That is an outworking of God’s wrath.  The second is through the judicial processes of the state, since the law enforcement officer is “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”, 13:4.  In this sense, Dr Cranfield writes, the state is “a partial, anticipatory, provisional manifestation of God’s wrath against sin”.’ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, p302).

‘Paul views wrath as both a present reality and a future expectation. It is at this point that judgment and destruction intersect with wrath…The present wrath is indicated by its present revelation from heaven (Rom 1:18) and in the threefold “handing over” by God of Gentiles to their abysmal life-styles in which heart, passions and mind are all given over to wickedness (Rom 1:24,26,28) and an absence of covenantal relationship with God. Likewise, although the Jews have the commands of God, (Rom 3:2) they are judged no better in actuality because of their disobedience. (Rom 3:20) Thus, all-Jew and Gentile-stand under judgment. But the wrath of God at this point in the process is not final (Rom 5:9 and 1 Thess 1:10; cf. Col 3:6) but awaits a future manifestation, just as salvation is not yet complete, and will not be fully experienced (Rom 5:21 6:22) until the last day.’ (DPL)

2:6 He will reward each one according to his works: 2:7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, 2:8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.

The quotation is from Ps 62:12, although see also Pr 24:12. The ‘principle of exact retribution’ (Stott) is also enunciated in Ho 12:2 Jer 17:10 32:19 Eze 9:10 11:21 Mt 16:27 2 Cor 5:10 Rev 2:23 20:12-13 22:12.

‘God will judge all people…according to their works (Mt 16:27; Rev 20:12–13). Paul amplifies. “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ 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. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil . . . but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good. . . . For God does not show favoritism” (Rom 2:6–11). The retributive principle applies throughout: Christians as well as non-Christians will receive according to their works. Christians are explicitly included in the reference when Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10).’ (Packer, Knowing God)

‘The relevance of our doings is not that they ever merit an award from the court—they fall too far short of perfection to do that—but that they provide an index of what is in the heart—what, in other words, is the real nature of each agent. Jesus once said, “Men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36–37). What is the significance of the words we utter (which utterance is, of course, a “work” in the relevant sense)? Just this: the words show what you are inside. Jesus had just made this very point. “A tree is recognized by its fruit. . . . How can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (vv. 33–34). Similarly, in the sheep-and-goats passage appeal is made to whether one had or had not relieved Christians’ needs. What is the significance of that? It is not that one way of acting was meritorious while the other was not, but that from these actions it could be seen whether there was love to Christ, the love that springs from faith, in the heart. (See Mt 25:34–46.)’ (Packer, Knowing God)

Paul’s teaching is that whereas justification is by faith, judgment is according to works.  Stott explains: ‘The whole New Testamen teaches this; although we sinners can be “justified” only by faith in Christ, yet we shall be “judged” by our works.  This is not a contradiction.  It is because good works of love are the only available public evidence of our faith.  Our faith in Jesus Christ is secret, hidden in our hearts.  But if it is genuine, it will manifest itself visibly in good works.  As James put it, “I will show you my faith by what I do…faith without deeds is useless”, James 2:18, 20.  Since the judgment day will be a public occasion, it will be necessary for public evidence to be produced, namely the outworking of our faith in compassionate action.  Jesus himself taught this many times.  For example, “The Son of man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done”, Mt 16:27.  It is not our salvation, but our judgment, which will be according to our works.’ (Authentic Christianity, 186f)

‘In Rom 2:6-11, Paul was not teaching salvation by character or good deeds. He was explaining another basic principle of God’s judgment: God judges according to deeds, just as he judges according to truth. Paul was dealing here with the consistent actions of a person’s life, the total impact of his character and conduct. For example, David committed some terrible sins; but the total emphasis of his life was obedience to God. Judas confessed his sin and supplied the money for buying a cemetery for strangers; yet the total emphasis of his life was disobedience and unbelief.

‘True saving faith results in obedience and godly living, even though there may be occasional falls. When God measured the deeds of the Jews, he found them to be as wicked as those of the Gentiles. The fact that the Jews occasionally celebrated a feast or even regularly honored the Sabbath Day did not change the fact that their consistent daily life was one of disobedience to God. God’s blessings did not lead them to repentance.’ (Wiersbe)

Although good works are not the basis of our acceptance with God, they are the evidence of it, and Paul therefore emphasises their role in the very public judgement that is to come.

2:9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, 2:10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.
2:11 For there is no partiality with God. 2:12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

The law – mentioned for the first time here, it will feature extensively in Paul’s discussion from now on.

2:13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.
‘Those who obey…will be declared righteous’

How are we to understand the place of works (‘obedience to the law’) in relation to justification in this passage?  The main options are:-

  1. The self-contradiction view – that Paul is drawing on rabbinical thinking here, without bothering to assimilate it into, or reconcile it with, what he will say later about justification by grace.  So Bultmann.
  2. The hypothetical view – that Paul is teaching that those who obey the law would indeed be declared righteous, but there are in fact no such people, since, as this whole passage affirms, all are guilty before God.  ‘The implication is that such an exact conformity to [the law’s] demands is beyond the achievement of sinful man, a fact which receives explicit confirmation in the devastating accusation that begins at v17.’ (Wilson)  ‘This is a theoretical or hypothetical statement, of course, since no human being has ever fully beyed the law, cf. 3:20.  So there is no possibility of salvation by that road.  But Paul is writing about judgment, not salvation.  He is emphasising that the law itself did not guarantee the Jews immunity to judgment, as they thought.  For what mattered was not possession but obedience.’ (Stott)  ‘The course of his argument indicates that while a man would be justified if he were a “doer” of the law, yet, since no-one does it perfectly, there is no justification that way. (Bruce)  ‘The logic of these verses assumes that there is no person who is able to obey God’s law sufficiently so as to become righteous before him.’ (Moo, NBC)
  3. The paradox view – that both present justification by grace and future judgment according to works are taught by Paul (and James, for that matter), but that these must be held in tension.
  4. The evidentialist view – that obedience to the law is evidence of our justification, but not the ground of it.
  5. The ‘faith-that-works’ view – that faith and works are inseparable.  Paul speaks, for example, of ‘the obedience of faith’, Rom 1:5, and of the ‘work of faith’, 1 Thess 1:3.  Becasue justification and obedience are so inextricably linked, Paul can speak of justification as having a future reference, Rom 2:13; 8:33; Gal 5:4-5, and of a judgment on the basis of works, Rom 2:12; 14:10; 1 Cor 3:15; 2 Cor 5:10.  ‘Believers are justified on the basis of faith, seen not as a human work or merit, but as an expression and result of the grace of God. And believers are judged on the basis of their works, seen as the natural outcome, result and expression of justifying faith. Believers are justified by faith, and judged by its fruit. There is thus a strong connection between the past and future elements of justification-embracing faith and its outworking. Works are the visible demonstration of a real and justifying faith-not the dead faith of which James complained (Jas 2:14-24).’ (McGrath, DPL)

Conclusion: although view 5 is true, I am not convinced that it is the truth taught by this particular passage.  I incline towards view 2.

Cf. Lev 18:5; Mt 19:17; James 1:22.

2:14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. 2:15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, 2:16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

‘In Rom 2:14-16, Paul’s point is that even people without the law show by their actions that distinctions between right and wrong are known to them. Like everyone else, they do experience crises of conscience. Sometimes their consciences actually defend them: no one, not even the pagan Gentile, is as bad as he or she might be. At other times, their consciences convict them. Paul’s point, then, is that even those without the law must admit that distinctions between right and wonrg are found everywhere, and everywhere people fall short and sometimes fail to live up to whatver light they have. That is very different from saying some pagans so live up to the light they have that they turn to God revealed in nature and call to him for mercy. The texts do not even hint at such a vision. Moreover, the burden of Paul’s argument from 1:18 to 3:20 is to demonstrate “that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin,” Rom 3:9.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 311)

‘Conscience is God’s deputy or vicegerent. Conscience is a witness of a Deity. If there were no Bible to tell us there is a God, yet conscience might. Conscience, as the apostle says, ‘either accuseth’ or ‘excuseth.’ Rom 2:15. It acts in order to a higher judicatory. Natural conscience, being kept free from gross sin, excuses. When a man does virtuous actions, lives soberly and righteously, observes the golden maxim, doing to others as he would have them do to him, then conscience approves, and says, Well done. Like a bee it gives honey. Natural conscience in the wicked accuses. When men go against its light they feel the worm of conscience. Eheu! quis intus scorpio? Alas! What scorpion lurks within? Seneca. Conscience, being sinned against, spits fire in men’s faces, fills them with shame and horror. When the sinner sees a handwriting on the wall of conscience, his countenance is changed. Many have hanged themselves to quiet their conscience.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

‘God is often represented as the judge of mankind, Deut 32:36; Ps 1:4; 1 Sam 2:10; Ec 3:17; Rom 3:6; Heb 13:4. But this does not militate against the fact that he will do it by Jesus Christ. God has appointed his Son to administer judgment; and it will be not by God directly, but by Jesus Christ that it will be administered.’ (Barnes)

My gospel – cf. Rom 16:25; 2 Tim 2:8

The Condemnation of the Jew

2:17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God 2:18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, 2:19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 2:20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth—2:21 therefore you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself?

Paul turns from self-righteous moralists to those with religious benefits and privileges. They too are guilty because they have failed to live up to their beliefs and principles. Those of us who have been brought up in Christian homes are in a similar position today.

‘This is a classic statement of the well-known Jewish belief— variously expressed, but common across many traditions— that God’s call of Abraham and his family was designed to put right what was wrong with the world. Paul is not saying, as some commentators have imagined, “You are a bigot, imagining yourself to be morally superior.” He is saying, “You believe that God has called you— has called Israel as a whole— to be the light of the world.” And Paul affirms that belief. “The Jew” whom he is addressing is quite correct. This is indeed what the scriptures say. This is the vocation of Israel.’ (Wright, The Day the Revolution Began)

‘These words are a scathing criticism of hypocrisy. It is much easier to tell others how to behave than to behave properly ourselves. It is easier to say the right words than to allow them to take root in our lives. Do you ever advise others to do something you are unwilling to do yourself? Make sure that your actions match your words.’ (Life Application)

You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 2:22 You who tell others not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 2:23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by transgressing the law! 2:24 For just as it is written, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
2:25 For circumcision has its value if you practice the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 2:26 Therefore if the uncircumcised man obeys the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 2:27 And will not the physically uncircumcised man who keeps the law judge you who, despite the written code and circumcision, transgress the law?
2:28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, 2:29 but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.

The NIV omits ‘for’ at the beginning of v28, obscuring the fact that Paul is about the explain why the law-keeping Gentile will judge the law-breaking Jew.

Paul is, in effect, distinguishing between the ‘nominal’ Jew and the ‘true’ Jew.  The nominal Jew is one in outward appearance, and in the estimation, perhaps, of others.  The true Jew is one in inner reality (lit. ‘the one in secret’), and in the estimation of God.  Man, after all, look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.

But does this ‘true Jew’, in Paul’s thinking, come from within the ranks of ethnic Israel, or is such a person a believer, whether Jew or Gentile?  For Vlach, ‘the true Jew is the ethnic Jew who has trusted in God through faith’ (Has the Church Replaced Israel?).  He cites Fruchtenbaum as arguing that ethnic Jews, not Gentiles, are the subject of Paul’s discussion here (see esp. v17).  However, v26f indicate that Paul is indeed thinking about Gentile believers (as well as Jewish believers) here.

Circumcision of the heart – The theme of circumcision or uncircumcision of the heart is frequently found in the OT (e.g. Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 6:10; 9:26).

In defining what it means to be a true Jew, Stott sees a fourfold contrast: ‘First, the essence of being a true Jew (who may indeed be ethnically a Gentile) is not something outward and visible, but inward and invisible. For the true circumcision is, secondly, in the heart, not the flesh. Thirdly, it is effected by the Spirit, not the law, and fourthly, it wins the approval of God rather than human beings. Human beings are comfortable with what is outward, visible, material and superficial. What matters to God is a deep, inward, secret work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.’