Paul seems to condemn himself in today’s Bible reading. He tells his readers to not judge, but he seems to do that very thing as he progresses through Romans 2. So what’s going on?
Jesus told his followers to not judge, lest they also be judged. (Matthew 7:1) But Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t judge” in a vacuum. He says,
Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3–5 (CSB)
Jesus points out — as does Paul in today’s reading — that everyone sins. Everyone. And to point out someone else’s sin while not acknowledging our own is the problem with judgment. Jesus’ main idea in Matthew 7:3-5 is that every one of us has problems seeing properly. And Paul says that every one of us is a lawbreaker. Whereas we judge on a sliding scale — with us on the “good” end of the scale and not worthy of the worst punishment — God judges without showing favoritism: Everyone is equally guilty of breaking His covenant laws and therefore equally worthy of eternal separation from God in eternal torment.
Jesus’ main idea in Matthew 7:3-5 is that every one of us has problems seeing properly. And Paul says that every one of us is a lawbreaker. Whereas we judge on a sliding scale — with us on the “good” end of the scale and not worthy of the worst punishment — God judges without showing favoritism (Romans 2:11): Everyone is equally guilty of breaking His covenant laws and therefore equally worthy of eternal separation from God in eternal torment.
Paul brings out a crucial thought at the end of the chapter: It’s all about relationship! While Jewish readers might point out their physical differences with Gentiles, claiming God’s special blessing because they were circumcised, Paul says that what really matters is that someone’s heart is circumcised. The problem isn’t doing the right things and not doing the wrong things. The problem is Fallen Humanity has a heart problem. Jesus said that the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. (Luke 6:45) Hence, when we speak in judgment of someone with partiality — as we are prone to do — our words reveal what our heart really believes.
Do you judge? Do you talk down about other people in order to make yourself look better? That’s the problem that Paul is talking about. CS Lewis said, “The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cesspool.” Until we cross over to the other side of eternity, we will continue to deal with that “inner cesspool”.
Anytime you think you’re “all that”, remember that you, too are cut from the same piece of fabric as the rest of humanity, no better and no worse on God’s holiness scale. You are no more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than anyone else who ever walked on this planet, hence, your need for grace and mercy.
By definition, grace and mercy are undeserved. If someone deserved grace and mercy, it wouldn’t be grace and mercy; it would be “wages”. Because of sin, God owes you nothing. There is nothing you can bring to a negotiating table with God. And that’s what makes the gospel message so beautiful!