"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things". (Romans 2:1, NIV)
Have you ever noticed that in his letter to the Romans, Paul includes a big chunk early on which seems on a first reading rather unnecessary?
In this highly ordered letter, Paul sets out the central human problem in 1:18-32 - the wrath of God on account of our rebellion. He then moves on to the solution in Christ: how, wonderfully, His death on the cross puts right with God those who trust in Him (3:21-26). The solution exactly matches the problem. But in between is a big section (2:1-3:20), which isn’t strictly needed for the logic of his argument. Why the delay along the way?
Paul turns out to have a very good reason for pausing. It is that we deny that the problem is ours personally. This is what 2:1-3:20 is about. In this section Paul is addressing religious people - quite possibly many of them pious Jews. They may agree that God is displaying His wrath at human rebellion. It’s just that they deny that this is their problem.
What Paul does in this section is to show people the refuges they hide in, the ways they persuade themselves that the wrath of God is not something they need worry about.
“I’m better than these wicked people, so I must be okay” (2:1-3).
“No!” replies the Apostle, “if you apply to yourself the standard you apply to others, you will find you’re guilty.”
“Life is fine for me, so God must be pleased with me” (2:4-5).
“No again! You’re mistaking God’s patience for His approval.”
“We are Jewish, living under God’s covenant of circumcision” (2:17-20)
“Yes, but your behaviour is hypocritical, and what God has always looked for is a changed heart.”
And so he moves on, until he summarises this “denial” section by the devastating conclusion that There is no-one righteous, not even one (3:10). We must stop thinking that God’s wrath is someone else’s problem! Only when he’s established that does Paul come to the marvellous solution in Christ.
What the Apostle knows, doubtless from his great experience as an evangelist, is that there is a big difference between acknowledging that the world in general is in trouble with God, and seeing that I personally am, too. We tend to be in denial that we deserve it.
There are other ways of being in denial that we deserve God’s wrath (for instance, by denying personal responsibility for our actions). But the fact that Paul focusses here on the kinds of denials that religious-minded readers make suggests that he considers them most likely to fall into the dreadful illusion that God’s wrath isn’t their problem.
Might you or I be thinking this way? Drop the denials and flee to Christ as the only refuge!
Subscribe to receive St Andrew the Great blog alerts by email.