A Commentary by John Stott

Romans 2:1-16 Critical moralisers.

Having declared the depraved Gentile world to be guilty and inexcusable (1:20; 32), Paul now passes the same verdict on a person whom he addresses in direct speech: *You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else…* (2:1). Who is this person? He or she is an imaginary character whom, in the long standing tradition of the Greek ‘diatribe’, the apostle engages in dialogue. Indeed this individual, together with the category which he or she represents, is in the forefront of Paul’s mind throughout the first sixteen verses of Romans 2.

Many commentators (perhaps most) believe that, having portrayed and condemned Gentile society in 1:18-32, Paul now turns his attention to Jewish people.. This is an understandable viewpoint, since the classification of the human race into Jews and Gentiles is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the letter (E.g. 1:16; 2:9f.; 3:9, 29; 9:24; 10:12; 15:8f.) and one of the apostle’s main purposes in writing is to demonstrate that Jews and Gentiles are equal in sin and equal in salvation. There are two objections, however, to the straightforward identification of Paul’s interlocutor at the beginning of Romans 2 as a Jew. First, it is not until verse 17 that he involves a Jew in direct conversation (‘Now you, if you call yourself a Jew…’). Instead, in the earlier verses, although this is obscured by NIV, he twice addresses his partner in the dialogue as ‘O man’ (1,3), deliberately emphasizing that he or she is a human being, rather than specifically a Jew or a Gentile.

Secondly, if this section refers exclusively to the Jewish world, then 1:18-32 is the only picture Paul gives us of the ancient Gentile world, in which case it would seem to be an unbalanced one. For not all Gentiles preferred darkness to light, became idolaters, and were abandoned by God to sexually and socially promiscuous behaviour. There were others, as F.F.Bruce has pointed out:

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.’

Bruce continues:

Not only did he (sc. Seneca) exalt the great moral virtues; He exposed hypocrisy, he preached the equality of all human beings, he acknowledged the pervasive character of evil…he practised and inculcated daily self-examination, he ridiculed vulgar idolatry, he assumed the role of a moral guide….

It seems probable, therefore, that Paul has such Gentiles in mind as he dictates verses 1-16. He is evidently thinking of Jews too, however, since he twice uses the expression ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (9, 10). It may even be that the Jews are his ‘hidden target’ throughout, and he begins in more general terms only to win their endorsement of his condemnation before turning the tables on them. But his main emphasis is clearly seem 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 judgements on other people.

This becomes clearer when we compare the people envisaged in 1:32 and 2:1-3. The similarities are evident. Both groups have a certain knowledge of God as creator (1:20) or judge (1:32; 2:2), and both contradict their knowledge by their behaviour; they ‘do such things’ as Paul has been describing (1:32; 2:2). What then, is the difference between them? It is that the first group do things they know to be wrong and *approve* of others who do them (1:32), which is at least consistent; whereas the second group do what they know to be wrong and *condemn* others who do them, which is hypocritical. The first group dissociate themselves entirely from God’s righteous decree, in regard to both themselves and others; whereas the second group deliberately identify themselves with it by setting themselves up as judges, only to find that they are being judged for doing the same things.

The underlying theme of this section, then, is the judgment of God upon self-appointed judges. His judgment is inescapable (1-4), righteous (5-11) and impartial (12-16).

Tomorrow: Romans 2:1-4. God’s judgment is inescapable.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.