Romans 2:17-29 – a false reliance on religion for salvation from judgement

Things to note about the passage

  • Verse 16 and verses 28, 29 frame the passage we are focussing on this week. In verse 16 Paul points out that on the day of judgement Jesus Christ will judge every person’s secrets. In verses 28,29 Paul points out that its what a person is inwardly that matters to God.
  • Paul sends time in the first half of chapter 2 verses 1-16 critiquing the human race (both Jew and Gentile) as critical moralizers passing judgement on others for doing the same things they themselves are guilty of doing.
  • In the second half of chapter 2 verses 17-29 Paul focuses his attention on believers from a Jewish heritage.
  • Paul pre-empts and responds to Jewish objections to his argument so far in the letter. John Stott puts forward the possible Jewish objection in this way ~ “Surely Paul, you can’t possibly treat us as if we were no different from Gentile outsiders? Have you forgotten that we have been given both the law (the revelation of God) and circumcision (the sign of the covenant of God)? Have you overlooked the fact that these three privileges (covenant, circumcision and law) are themselves tokens of the greatest privilege of all, that God chose us to be his special people? Are you saying that we Jews (who have been uniquely favoured by God’s election) are no better off than the Gentiles? How can you disregard these peculiar blessings of ours, which distinguish us from the Gentiles and protect us from God’s judgement?”
  • Verses 17-24 Paul exposes the Jewish reliance on the Law for salvation.
  • Paul uses eight verbs in verses 17-20 to describe the Jews (misguided) self-confidence and self-assurance.
  1. ‘you call yourself a Jew’
  2. ‘you rely on the law’
  3. ‘you…brag about your relationship to God’
  4. ‘you know his will’
  5. ‘you approve of what is superior’
  6. ‘you are instructed by the law’
  7. ’you are convinced that you are competent to teach others’
  8. ’you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.’
  • Verses 21-24 Paul uses five rhetorical questions to expose the Jews hypocrisy and show why they will not escape God’s judgement.
  1. ’You, then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?’
  2. ‘You who preach against stealing, do you steal?’
  3. ‘You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?’
  4. ‘you who abhor idols, do you rob temples?’ *
  5. ‘you who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law?’

*What Paul has in mind is difficult to say: perhaps he refers to some scandalous incident like that of AD 19 recorded by Josephus when four Jews of Rome, led by one who professed to teach Jewish faith to interested Gentiles, persuaded a noble Roman lady, a convert to Judaism, to make a munificent contribution to the temple at Jerusalem, but appropriated it for their own uses. (FF Bruce) The conjunction with idolatry suggests the robbing of pagan temples cf. Acts 19:37.

  • Verse 24 God is dishonoured by their (and our) hypocrisy.
  • Verses 25-29 In the same way that knowledge of the law did not exempt the Jew from God’s judgement neither did circumcision.
  • Jews falsely believed that circumcision would save them from God’s coming wrath. Some recorded Rabbinic sayings are ~ ‘Circumcised men do not descend into Gehenna,’ and ‘Circumcision will deliver Israel from Gehenna.’
  • Verses 25-27

Circumcision – obedience* = uncircumcision

Uncircumcision + obedience = circumcision

*The true sign of membership of the covenant of God is neither possession of the law or circumcision but obedience, which the law demands. This is not salvation by obedience, but obedience as evidence of salvation.

Outward sign – inward reality = law-breaking

No outward sign + inward reality = faith evidenced by law keeping.

  • Verses 28,29 are key to Paul’s argument. Paul redefines what it means to be a Jew, an authentic member of God’s people. A true Jew (who may be ethnically a Gentile) is not based on outward signs but on an inward sign. True circumcision is in the heart not the flesh, the Spirit of God achieves it not the law and it gains God’s approval not the approval of human beings.

Other passages to look at

  • Verse 19 cf. Isaiah 42:6f; 49:6
  • Verse 24 cf. Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:22
  • Verses 25-29 cf. Genesis 17:9ff
  • Verse 25 cf. Gal. 5:3
  • Verse 28,29 cf. Ezk. 44:9; Jer. 9:25f.;4:4; Ezk. 36:26f.; 2 Cor.3:6; Gen. 29:35; 49:8.

Possible questions

What do you rely on when it comes to assurance of salvation?

What is the state of your heart? Does the outward appearance match the inward reality?

Who are you when no one is looking?

How would you respond to the person who says, “I know I’m going to heaven because … I was baptised, I was confirmed, I attend Church, I was born in a Christian country, my grandmother donated a pew etc.?”


Gracious God,

Thank you that you are patient and kind delaying judgement to allow people to repent.

Please help us acknowledge our desperate need of a Saviour.

Help us to not rely on our Christian heritage, our own goodness, our baptism, involvement in Church or any other outward props to escape your coming wrath.

Show to us afresh the depths of our sin and drive us to repentance and faith in the saving work of your Son the Lord Jesus.

Give us new hearts filled with your Spirit that we might live lives that bring glory to you our great God and not dishonour to your name.


Romans 2:1-16 – Missing the point of God’s wrath

The Bible Text

Romans 2:1-16

Things that can be plainly seen from the text

  • Paul uses the word ‘you’ in these verses instead of ‘they’ of verses 1:18-32
  • ‘You’ have no excuse – this draws the previous condemnation passage into the life of the reader (1:20 ‘people are without excuse’)
  • The logic of vv1-4 seem to be: notice how easy it is for you to judge others – and notice how you actually fail in the same areas where you judge others – and notice how God is a judge who will judge perfectly (based on truth) – therefore you are not going to dodge God’s judgement yourself!
  • Here is a clear piece of text: v6 “God will repay each person according to what they have done.”
  • Verse 8 identifies that the judgement of God on the wicked is with wrath and anger – in contrast to the present condition of kindness and forbearance mentioned in verse 4. Also verse 9 describes it as trouble and distress.
  • Knowing the law (or indeed having access to church and a bible) is not what makes us righteous – it is obeying the law – living out the law of God.
  • Paul argues in verses 12-16 that it’s not just the Jews who will be given a pass/fail test on the day of judgement but the whole human race who demonstrate an awareness of justice.
  • There will be a day when God judges people (v16)
  • God will judge what is obvious to all and also what has been kept secret from all (v16)


  • Does verse 7 indicate that it is possible to actually receive eternal life by always doing good? Answer: that is true logically in the context of Paul’s argument. But he is trying to make a more firmer point her – that this is impossible and therefore all will be judged as unrighteous/sinners.
  • Does this leave everybody guilty and unable to pass the test of judgement on the last day? Where is the hope in this passage? Is it there? ANSWER: v16 and verse 4 provide the hope of this passage but the weight of judgement day must be felt in these paragraphs because this is the point of the passage.

Repetitive themes

  • The wrath of God
  • The judgement of God
  • Jew and Gentile
  • Law

Other bible passages related to this text

  • Psalm 62:12 is quoted in verse 6 – it is worth reading that quote and comparing how it is used in the Psalm verses Paul’s conclusion in Romans. Also Prov 24:10-12.
  • Romans 1:16-17 describe the importance of the gospel to Pauls theme in this whole letter. Speaking of God’s judgement is part of this gospel (2:16).
  • Romans 3:25-26 – Although none of us will stand before God righteous by our own merits on the day of judgement, God has provided righteousness for us through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His atoning sacrifice means that God can justify the unrighteous and yet remain just as he judges!


  • Be on our knees in repentance
  • Don’t show contempt for God’s kindness and patience – know that he is holding off judgement so that we and the rest of humanity may have a chance to hear the gospel and live!
  • Pray for more full-time workers to go and tell the good news! (Romans 1:15-16)
  • Learn how to share the gospel with others


Father God, we give you thanks and praise you for your patience and kindness toward us. We thank you for the gospel of the LORD Jesus Christ and for our opportunity to repent of our wickedness. We are truly sorry for thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. Thank you for your forgiveness. Help us, we pray, to know your gospel and to share it with those around us. Amen.

More Questions

  1. What does righteousness mean?
  2. How does this passage impact our approach to social work – eg, charity, health care, etc
  3. Should repentance be on everyone’s bucket list?


Romans 1:18-32 – The ignorance of sin

Paul spends three chapters in the book of Romans to convince his readers that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). To get to this conclusion, he begins at Romans 1:18 to speak of the way humans suppress the truth about God.

There is a great deal to discuss in these verses but note a few of these.

1) Paul describes the human race as spiralling further and further away from God rather than being a morally maturing breed. Note verse 22, the description of replacing worship of an immortal God for images: first images that look like mortal humans (who at least were made in the image of God), then of birds and of animals and then of reptiles – is it a coincidence that this verse begins with the image of God and ends with the image of the deceiver of Genesis 3? People are not getting better and better. No achievement or progression of mankind can get us closer to God or being more godlike. When we get to Romans 3, we will discuss the doctrine of ‘total depravity.’ Humanity is not ‘basically good with traces of evil’ – rather, humanity is blind to the truth about God and is blissfully unaware of its utter rebelliousness. NB Ephesians 2:1-3!

2) Note that God is not active in producing sin in us. Rather, he ‘gave [us] over in [our] sinful desires of [our] heart. ‘God gave them over’ is repeated in verses 24, 26, and 28 – our desires, our passions and our minds are all warped in a direction away from the truth.

3) There is a dark description of the condition of mankind in these verses. A description that needs to be taken seriously. But note the broad spectrum of sin covered in this passage: wrong worship of God, wrong use of our bodies, wrong approach to sex, and wrong approach to human relationships. I particularly take note at ‘they disobey their parents.’ It may sound humerous among so many ‘worse’ activities or thoughts, but this is to illustrate how profoundly horrible and basic our sin is. Remember the 5th commandment? Paul is not describing ‘those people out there’ but our own hearts – for all who are yet to be introduced to the Saviour!

I’ll leave you with a quote from a blog that I think is really helpful in relation to this weeks passage and a link to the much longer blog…

Psalm 14 puts it succinctly:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps 14:1)

The one who removes God from consideration, who is unresponsive to God, is a fool. In the words of John Woodhouse:

People who do not take God seriously find it very difficult to see the seriousness of not taking God seriously. To refuse to take God seriously is the ultimate stupidity but once you have committed it, the inevitable effect is to blind you to its idiocy. It does not seem at all stupid not to take God seriously, if you don’t… Our sinfulness gets in the way of seeing our sinfulness.

A similar point is made in Romans 1, where the downward spiral of sin begins with a suppression of the truth (perhaps the suppression of the truth by the first man and woman in the Garden) but descends very quickly into the foolishness David was speaking about in Psalm 14:

For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools… And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:21–22, 28)

Ultimately it is sin itself which is the root cause of the contemporary abandonment of sin.

Read more of this blog here, particularly the points made toward the end of it…