We rarely do justice well. God always does justice well. Romans is about the justice of God—real righteousness. As Paul built a bridge between Jews and Gentiles in the church at Rome he explained what God’s justice looks like. Following the opening greeting and his typical thanksgiving, Paul stated the thesis (Romans 1:16, 17). The gospel is God’s power for the salvation of all people and displays how the real righteousness of God takes place in the context of faith. Paul based his thesis on Habakkuk 2:4.
Following the thesis Paul laid out his argument about God’s justice in the world (Romans 1:18-32). This justice is revealed from Heaven against Gentiles who, by natural revelation, know God’s will. However, these Gentiles willfully rejected God’s ways. As a result of God’s wrath they experienced a downward spiral of depravity. They exchanged the glory of God as well as their own identity, which caused them to perpetuate an ongoing culture of death.
At this point in Romans we’re reminded of the book of Amos. The shepherd of Tekoa blasted the nations and cities that surrounded Israel. He spoke to Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab (Amos 1, 2). He took them to the woodshed regarding their idolatries. One can hear in the backdrop an Israelite saying, “That’s right. Get them, God.” But then Amos addressed Judah’s sins and Israel’s sins. No doubt that same Israelite would have said, “Say what?”
If the Jewish Christians rejoiced to see how Paul had taken the Gentile Christians to task in chapter one, then they had to be confronted with their sin in chapter two. God’s justice was going to come home to roost. They were guilty of passing judgment (the word means to judge, discriminate, or distinguish) on their fellow believers. Their justice was warped. Their judgments were hypocritical. In short, they were behaving with duplicity. They passed judgment on others but failed to see their own shortcomings. The Jewish Christians forgot the rock of grace from which they were hewn.
God’s justice is based in truth (Romans 2:2). Our justice is often based in prejudice (v. 3). God’s justice was intended to bring about repentance (v. 4). Our justice simply stores up wrath against ourselves (v. 5). God will have the last word and bring to an abrupt halt any hypocritical justice (v. 6). God will save by grace, but he will judge by works. His justice will be perfect because it is never hypocritical.
In this section of our text we see evidence of a biblical chiasm and some parallelism. Verse 7 is parallel to verse 10. Verse 8 is parallel to verse 9. So the structure looks like this: A-B-B-A (i.e. positive, negative, negative, positive). True justice always seeks the right things in the right ways. True justice is more than rightness. It is righteous.
To the person who is zealous for the right things (goodness, glory, honor, and immortality) God will give eternal life (v. 7). Verse 10 also adds the virtue of peace. In contrast, those who are self-seeking (the word means working only for selfish purposes or being mercenary), reject the truth (literally, “do not obey the truth”), and follow evil (literally, “follow unrighteousness”) there will be wrath and anger (Paul uses the two most common volatile words here meaning “settled anger” and “quick tempered”). Trouble (affliction; being pressed) and distress await anyone who does evil. True justice is accomplished by the righteous.
Romans 2:11, 12
Paul widened the circle in this section. He had given a hint of this earlier. He spoke to each person (v. 6) and every human being (v. 9). In fact, twice in our text, Paul said that this true justice related to Jew and Gentile (in that order).
Part of what makes God’s justice always just is that he is not capable of showing favoritism (literally, “regarding the face of humankind”). Human justice is always warped because it is bent toward bias. God’s justice can apply universally because he is not partial. Those who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) and those who sin under the law (Jews) will have God’s justice applied equally to them. No one could ever accuse God of being biased or unfair.
By addressing God’s justice to both Jew and Gentile, Paul not only proved himself pastoral with an ethnically challenged church, but he also advanced his argument that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (3:23). However the good news is that those very fallen ones will be given righteousness in Christ.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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