Condemnation of Mankind – Romans 2:12–29
Read the Passage: Romans 2:12-29
Condemned by Conscience (2:12–16)
In Rom. 2:12–16 Paul is primarily addressing the spiritual state of Gentiles—that is, those who are “without [the written] law” (Rom. 2:12). Here Paul writes that those who sin without the law will perish without the law, just as those who sin with the law will be judged by the law. Paul’s point here is that all men will be judged for their sin, regardless of whether or not they have access to the written law in Scripture. This is because mankind is not judged based upon his possession (or lack thereof) of the written law; rather, mankind is judged based upon his breaking of the moral law, an act the Bible calls “sin.” In Rom. 2:14–16 Paul writes that those without the written law know that they are law-breakers, or sinners. Here Paul explains that they can’t avoid knowledge of the moral law, for “the law [is] written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:15).
The conscience is frequently mentioned in the New Testament. Indeed, Scripture speaks of having a “good conscience” (Acts 23:1), a “clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9), and a cleansed conscience (cf. Heb 9:14). The New Testament also mentions the possibility of an “evil conscience” (Heb 10:22), a defiled conscience (cf. Titus 1:15), a weak conscience (cf. 1 Cor 8:7), as well as a seared conscience (cf. 1 Tim 4:2). Moreover, Paul writes about the testimony of his own conscience, which he observed was Spirit-led and without guilt (cf. Rom 9:1). The apostle Paul also encourages believers to submit to their authorities “because of your conscience” (Rom 13:5) and exhorts his readers to order their conduct aright in view of the consciences of others (cf. 1 Cor 8:12). Clearly, the conscience is a tool God uses to regulate and to reveal His moral standards to mankind.
Condemned by Law (2:17–24)
In Rom. 2:17–24 Paul turns his attention to his Jewish readers. Whereas Paul’s Gentile readers may have argued that they were not condemned because they did not have access to the written law, Paul’s Jewish readers may have argued that they were not condemned because they did have access to the law! In Rom. 2:12–16 Paul answered his Gentile readers by pointing out that their consciences condemned them as law-breakers. Here in Rom. 2:17–24 Paul answered his Jewish readers by pointing out that the written law that they possessed condemned them as law-breakers. Indeed, mere possession of the law did not keep the Jews from sinning (cf. John 5:45–47), for they needed the gospel. As Paul explains in more detail in the next chapter, “Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law . . . . by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in God’s sight” (Rom. 3:19–20).
Later, in writing to the Galatian churches, Paul is very clear that the moral law cannot save those who possess and keep it. Paul wrote, “By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. . . . If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:16, 21). This is the same point Paul is making to his Jewish readers here in Rom. 2:17–24. Yet, just because the law cannot save does not mean that it ought to be discarded. On the contrary, as Paul will explain in more detail in Rom. 3:1–8, being those who possess the written law, the Jews were in a privileged position, for they could more clearly see God’s righteousness, as well as their own contrasting unrighteousness and need of redemption. Indeed, of all people, given their access to Scripture, Paul’s Jewish readers should have been those who were most willing to receive the Messiah and His gospel message of salvation.
Condemned by Ceremony (2:25–29)
Unbelievers are often tempted to place their trust in their good works for salvation. Indeed, a commonality among every world religion, except for Christianity, is the concept of earning one’s own salvation. World religions merely differ in what types of works are prescribed for salvation. In our modern context, people put their trust in the good works of giving, morality, participation, tradition, sacrificing, and the like. In Paul’s context, his Jewish readers, put their trust in the good work of physical circumcision. The act of circumcision, which was prescribed within the Jewish ceremonial law, was first introduced in Gen. 17:10–14. This act was designed to be an outward physical sign of an inward spiritual reality and promise. Yet, among the Jews, over time, the external sign of circumcision became conflated with the internal spiritual reality in was meant to depict.
- Do you think Paul’s discussion of condemnation in Rom. 1:18–3:20 is overly harsh? How do we explain the good works of unbelievers?
- How did your own conscience aid you in understanding your need for the gospel? How did the moral law aid you in understanding the gospel?
- What objections do people typically raise today when confronted with the notion that they are spiritually bankrupt and in need of Jesus Christ?
- Was salvation by good works, or law-keeping, ever a legitimate possibility for mankind, even hypothetically (cf. Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16; 3:21)?
- As a believer, have you ever evaluated your standing before God based upon your performance as a Christian, rather than by your position in Christ?