Escaping the Judgment of God?
Text: Romans 2:1-16
Introduction: It is absolutely necessary that in examining any portion of this epistle we keep always in our minds the purpose Paul had in his mind when he first penned a particular passage. Nowadays, however, this historic and universally accepted standard approach to reading any document is under assault. We are experiencing in the culture at large and within the ranks of evangelicalism, a hermeneutical crisis. Stanley Grenz, a professing evangelical theologian who teaches at RegentCollege, urges Evangelicals to develop a new paradigm for understanding the Christian faith. Evangelicals, Grenz says, must shift from a creed-based-propositional understanding of their faith to one that is more in touch with the Post-modern world. Part of this Post-modern approach would entail revamping our definition of truth and would require us to locate authority in the “community of faith” rather than in the Bible.
Among other things this new hermeneutic tells us that the meaning of any particular passage depends not on what the Biblical author meant but on how the text functions for the reader. Thus the text may not be objectively and universally authoritative but is culturally conditioned. What this actually involves ends up reducing theology’s task as primarily reinterpreting the faith so as to make it relevant to new cultural contexts. The content of theology evolves as the culture changes.[i] Thus for example, the Apostle’s condemnation of homosexuality in 1:26, 27 is totally muted, if not actually reversed since the cultural climate (so we are told), is now different! The gay lobby has been quick to seize this hermeneutical opportunity in interpreting this crucial text in the contemporary debate about homosexuality. The traditional interpretation, that condemns all homosexual behavior, is being challenged by this very aggressive gay lobby. For example, it is claimed that the passage is irrelevant, on the ground that its purpose is neither to teach sexual ethics, nor to expose vice, but rather to portray the outworking of God’s wrath. This is true. But if a certain sexual conduct is to be seen as the consequence of God’s wrath, it must be displeasing to him. They further argue, ‘the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty’ since there was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world’, and that he is opposing it because of the humiliation and exploitation experienced by the youths involved. All one can say in response to this suggestion is that the text itself contains no hint of it.
Finally, they argue the text does not address “committed, loving relationships” between same sex couples. They are also quick to add to this their interpretation of Paul’s remarks about “against nature”. This, they claim does not apply to gay people who are born that way. These arguments are all cases of special pleading and in the end lack exegetical substance and have convinced only those predisposed to the gay cause.[ii]
What is more disturbing is that while some Evangelicals will emphatically disagree with the interpretation the gay agenda has placed upon this text, nevertheless, they have adopted the same hermeneutical model. Given the hermeneutical dead end that these Evangelicals have embarked upon, this situation is only going to get worse. When sin can be culturally re-defined, it will not take long before any particular sin becomes a virtue! In this section of the epistle Paul expressly tells us in verse 3:9 that he is striving to convince both Gentiles and Jews that they are guilty in the eyes of God for their particular sins. Chapter one focuses on the sins of the Gentile world and chapter two undertakes to demonstrate to the Jews that they too are guilty before God and, therefore, likewise subject to judgment. I am reminded of the preacher who preached on Hebrews 2:3, a text that declares, “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation”? The preacher proceeded to give his congregation a “How to” list of how to go about actually escaping God’s judgment if they did ignore such a great salvation! Interestingly enough, all of his points were drawn from the four possibilities of escape for those who offend human laws. In the first place, it is possible that the offense shall not become known. Illustrations of this in human experience abound. Second, there is always the chance that the guilty person may be able to escape the bounds of the legal jurisdiction under which the crime was committed.
Further, there may occur, after apprehension by the authorities, a breakdown in the legal processes. And, finally, the ultimate hope of the criminal is that he may escape from detention and live in a measure of freedom. The major problem with such a scheme is that there are no such possibilities with an all-knowing God (cf. Hebrews 4:13). God’s judgment is not only real and inescapable, it is absolutely just. Divine judgment by its very nature is always right. In Romans 2:1-16 the Apostle Paul will set forth the principles of divine judgment. He has already demonstrated the guilt of the Gentile world. He will now turn his attention to the Jew and those who think that their religiosity will somehow merit them special consideration. There are four variations of this theme in 2:1-16, which we will look at first and then consider a theological overview of God’s justice.
I. God’s Judgment is According to Reality (2:1-4): 2:1 in the Greek text begins with “Therefore”—DIO. It is the strongest inferential conjunction the Apostle had at his disposal. It links what Paul is about to declare with what he has already stated. The Jews knew the sins of the Gentiles deserved God’s wrath—but this did not alleviate their guilt. “Our own share of evil is not removed by condemning evil in others.[iii] In 2:2, the first variation of the principle of righteous judgment is introduced. God judges according to truth. The judgment of God concerns itself with the reality of the matter (cf. I Samuel 16:7). Therefore, NO escape is possible (2:3). God’s goodness and patience does not mean He is indifferent to sin. To treat God so only shows contempt. Do you really think you can do this and escape God’s judgment? The Apostle frames the question so that the answer is obvious. “The verb translated think (which comes first in the Greek) is quite Pauline. It is properly an arithmetical word and means ‘to count’, ‘to reckon’. But it is often used metaphorically where numbers are not in question with a meaning like ‘take into account’, ‘reckon’, ‘consider’. It is a word that invites to reasoning, which may be why it turns up so often in Romans. It is suited to the argumentative style that Paul adopts throughout this letter.”[iv]
II. God’s Judgment is According to Works (2:5-11): The second variation of Paul’s theme is now developed. The Jews by refusing the Gospel are, in fact, storing up wrath for themselves on the day that God will render to each person exactly what their deeds deserve. Remember, Paul is expounding the Law—which can only condemn. “God’s judgment is not according to one’s special privileges, but according to one’s deeds, as the Mosaic Law itself teaches.”[v] We will examine this section in more detail next week, especially in light of the claims of what goes by the name “The Federal Vision.”
III. God’s Judgment is According to Impartiality (2:12-15): The third variation is introduced. God’s judgment is just. He deals with all as they deserve whether Jew or Gentile. Each is judged by the light they possess whether it is the light of the Mosaic Law, the moral law or conscience. Note carefully that the light men possess by nature (general revelation) is not sufficient to bring salvation. God will deal with individuals according to the knowledge they have—but mere knowledge of God’s being and expectations will not satisfy divine justice. “The only virtue in hearing the law lies in hearing to do. This is exceedingly simple. A child might hear his parent’s command, might admire the clearness of his voice and the perspicuity of his words, but what of his approval if he did not obey and do as told?”[vi] The point Paul is making is this: all men stand accused by the law of nature, the conscience and the memory. These three witnesses for prosecution will render everyone without excuse when they stand before God’s tribunal.
IV. God’s Judgment According to the Gospel (2:16): Paul is seeking to drive people from their false hopes. This section of the epistle has been described as “a general statement of divine principles of judgment, made in order to destroy the refuge of lies.”[vii] God’s judgment will deal with outward conduct but also secret or hidden things. This is a reference to the secret motions and motives of the heart (cf. I Samuel 16:7; Psalm 139:1-2, Jeremiah 17:10). This is clearly stated as well by Jesus (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). This will occur on the appointed Day of Judgment. Note the role Paul gives the Gospel. Some think this awkward or strange. But the Gospel does not preclude the thought of judgment, as Morris has written, it demands it. “Unless judgment is a stern reality, there is nothing from which sinners need to be saved and accordingly no ‘good news’, no gospel.”[viii]
V. God’s Justice: A Theological Analysis: Theologians have usually ascribed three aspects of God’s justice. When we speak of the justice of God we are first of all speaking of God’s character. Our God is a moral being. “God’s distinct moral attributes,” wrote Dabney, “may be counted as three—His justice, His goodness, and His truth—these concurring in His consummate moral attribute, holiness.”[ix]
A. His Rectorial Justice: The Latin word RECTITUDO is the source for our English word rectitude, which refers to uprightness. “Rectorial justice,” says Shedd, “is God’s rectitude as a ruler, over both the good and the evil. It relates to legislation, or the imposition of law. God, both in rewarding and punishing, lays down a just law. The reward and the penalty are exactly suited to the actions. Job 34:23, ‘For he will not lay upon man more than right.’ Psalm 89:14, ‘Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne’.”[x]
B. His Distributive Justice: This refers to the rectitude by which God executes the law. He distributes justly both rewards and penalties. “Distributive justice is God’s rectitude in the execution of law, both in reference to the good and the evil. It relates to the distribution of rewards and punishments. Romans 2:6, God ‘will render to every man according to his deeds.’ I Peter 1:17, ‘The Father without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work.’ Isaiah 3:10, 11, ‘Say ye to the righteous that it shall be well with him. Woe unto the wicked! It shall be ill with him’.”[xi] This may be explained as follows.
1. Remunerative Justice: The distribution of rewards to both angels and men (cf. Psalm 58:11; Matthew 25:21, 34; Hebrews 11:26). This is an expression of divine love and goodness. It is based on relative merit only.[xii]
2. Retributive Justice: This is the expression of divine wrath (cf. Romans 12:19 and Deuteronomy 32:35.
Herman Bavinck has succinctly summarized the distributive Justice of God. “His holy nature requires also that outside of Himself, in the world of creatures, He keep righteousness in force, and, without respect of persons reward everyone according to his works (Romans 2:2-11 and II Corinthians 5:10). Nowadays there are those who try to make themselves and others believe that God pays no attention to the sinful thoughts and deeds of men. But the true, the living God, whom Scriptures present to us, thinks very differently about this. His wrath is kindled terribly against native and actual sins, and He wants to punish them both temporally and eternally by way of a righteous judgment (Deuteronomy 27:26 and Galatians 3:10).”[xiii]
C. His Redemptive Justice: This has historically been referred to by the Latin expression IUSTITIA EVANGELICA. This has to do with God’s work of justification by faith alone in Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Our salvation rests entirely upon the sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction and the fullest of Christ’s active and passive obedience, which is imputed to the believer.[xiv]
Conclusion: All three aspects of God’s justice are dealt with by Paul in his epistle to the Romans. In Romans 2:1-16 he is unfolding God’s distributive justice. The Apostle Paul is reaffirming the truth of Numbers 32:23—“be sure of this, your sin will find you out.” There will be no escaping the day of God’s judgment. It is coming and with each passing moment it draws closer. God must judge sin—all sin. He can do no other. He is holy and righteous in all that He does. How will you fare before Him? What will you do when He calls you to account? The Gospel message declares that Jesus Christ, God’s own dear Son, died for sinners. He was judged in their stead. He atoned for their sins. Heed the words from Augustus Toplady’s famous hymn “When I soar to worlds unknown, See Thee on Thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee.”
[i] Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (IVP, 1993). For a critique, cf. D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996), pp. 443-489 and R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Contending for the Truth in an Age of Anti-Truth” in Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals, eds. J. M. Boice and B. E. Sasse (Baker, 1996), pp. 63-68.
[ii] Cf. J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: The Bible Speaks Today Series (IVP, 1994), pp. 77, 78 for discussion.
[iii] Adolf Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God (Hendrickson, 1995), p. 48.
[iv] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (IVP, 1988), p. 111.
[v] S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Romans: Believers Bible Bulletin (Believers Chapel, 1980), p. 4.
[vi] James Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Revell, 1949), p. 31.
[vii] W. H. Griffith-Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (rpt. Eerdmans, 1962), p. 81.
[viii] L. Morris, op. Cit., p. 129.
[ix] R. L. Dabney, Lectures In Systematic Theology (rpt. Zondervan, 1975), p. 165.
[x] W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology I (rpt. Zondervan, 1971), p. 365.
[xii] The Westminster Confession (Chapter VII, Section 1) reads: “the distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”
[xiii] Cf. H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (rpt. Baker, 1977), p. 141.
[xiv] This is just the opposite of what is known as the governmental theory of the atonement (a view, by the way, that was held by Charles Finney and a growing number of present day professed Evangelicals). According to this view, there is no exact equivalent between the value of Christ’s work and the offer of salvation. Rather, God accepts the death of His Son as a payment for the sake of providing, not full satisfaction for sin, but rather an example of the divine wrath against sin. This position says, in effect, that justice is not an inherent necessity of the divine nature. See the discussion in H. D. McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ In Faith, Revelation, and History (Baker, 1985), pp. 196-207.
Dr. Sproul’s sermons at St. Andrew’s Chapel are the foundation of these never-before-published expositions on Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Chrysostom had it read aloud to him once a week. Augustine, Luther, and Wesley all came to assured faith through its impact. The Reformers saw it as the God-given key to understanding the whole of Scripture.
Throughout church history the study of the book of Romans has been pivotal to understanding Christian life and doctrine. Convinced that “Paul’s fullest, grandest, most comprehensive statement of the gospel” is just as vital today, R. C. Sproul delivered nearly sixty sermons on Romans from October 2005 to April 2007 at St. Andrew’s Chapel, where he has pastored for more than a decade. These never-before-published, passage-by-passage expositions will enrich any study of this weighty epistle.
“‘R. C. Sproul,’ someone said to me in the 1970s, ‘is the finest communicator in the Reformed world.’ Now, three decades later, his skills honed by long practice, his understanding deepened by years of prayer, meditation, and testing (as Martin Luther counseled), R. C. shares the fruit of what has become perhaps his greatest love: feeding and nourishing his own congregation at St. Andrew’s from the Word of God and building them up in faith and fellowship and in Christian living and serving. The St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary will be welcomed throughout the world. It promises to have all R. C.’s hallmarks: clarity and liveliness, humor and pathos, always expressed in application to the mind, will, and affections. R. C.’s ability to focus on the ‘the big picture,’ his genius of never saying too much, leaving his hearers satisfied yet wanting more, never making the Word dull, are all present in these expositions. They are his gift to the wider church. May they nourish God’s people well and serve as models of the kind of ministry for which we continue to hunger.” —Sinclair B. Ferguson (Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina)