All posts by Leanne Burns

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.