4Do you (who practice evil) think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God should lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God 6 who will render to each person according to his works: 7 to those who by perseverance in good work seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth but unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who practices evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, 10 but glory, honour and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God. 12 For all who have sinned apart from the Law will also perish apart from the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; 13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. (Rom2:4-13)
Yes, this really is Paul’s writing and it really is from his letter to the Romans! Yet for many, including myself for the first 25 years of my Christian life, Romans 2 was an enigma – apparently at odds with what most understand the apostle to be teaching in the rest of his epistle: in particular, those phrases I have bolded.
Firstly, the God I had learned from the Reformers could hardly be described as “kind” (Greek: χρηστότητοςG5544), at least not in a humanly intelligible sense. For I had been led to believe that His intention was to dispatch the souls of many of the beings created in His image to Hell, apart from the proportional few He had chosen to receive undeserved mercy by enabling them to apprehend salvation in Christ. [My concept of predestination at the time was sound enough – its context within overall providence was not]. Far from being tolerant the Creator I perceived could not endure the foibles of anyone who did not match His own perfection, punishing them to a disproportionate degree (i.e. eternally) for what He knew them to capable of achieving unless He were to aid them, which in most cases he chose not to do. That, incidentally, is diametrically opposed to the quality of love as Paul later goes on to define it. If a human being treated a child or an animal in such a way (punishing it for that of which it was incapable) he would rightly be detested. It is no wonder the likes of Luther and Calvin regarded God’s nature as unintelligible from any human perspective. Given that Scripture defines God as love personified (1Jn4:8) that must also mean that divine Love is entirely different in nature to human love as that quality is described in Scripture (1Cor13:4-5).
Such depictions provide ammunition for the likes of Richard Dawkins and former Evangelical Dan Barker to write a book entitled “God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction”. Thankfully, god as I previously understood him is fiction whereas the God of the Bible is very real, What is more He is potentially capable of being universally adored once the true nature of His character, purposes and plans for humanity have been perceived: “Truly, we shall all praise You with uprightness of heart, when we have understood Your righteous judgments” (Ps119:7)
The Romans 2 enigma
Romans 2 may be an enigma to many, yet it sets out Paul’s understanding of God’s justice and how it will be exercised in final judgement. The Apostle’s description is in this instant clear, concise and as ever accords with the teaching of the Man Christ Jesus, who it must be remembered is the One appointed to judge humanity (Rom2:16). In terms of rewards and punishments, the Bible is consistent. Such judgement will be exercised on the basis of human works (Rom2:6 cf. Mt16:27; Rev20:13) which is effectively the legacy of our lives. “To those who by perseverance in good work seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life;but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey truth but unrighteousness, wrath and indignation”.
Yet as will be shown, Paul’s teaching here does not contradict what the apostle teaches elsewhere – that whether or not a person is justified in God’s sight is ultimately determined by the absence or presence of faith. But that faith is not mere belief, still less something along the lines of “coming to an end of my pursuit of personal righteousness and trusting in the merits of Another”, an earlier understanding of mine which is entirely invalidated by these passages in Romans 2, and more clearly so by the teaching of Jesus Himself. For faith itself is undeniably a virtue that itself results in virtuous intentions and endeavour. That is why Paul goes on to say that “it is not the hearers but the doers of the Law who will be justified” (v11). For faith actually enables (indeed ensures) one fulfils the essentials of God’s Law, not in letter but in spirit. And according to both Jesus and Paul the heart of the Law is focused on the relationship with our fellow human beings:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8)
Love does no harm to a neighbour therefore love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom13:10)
The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal5:14).
In terms of our love for God, which to the surprise of many Paul does not mention when defining the heart of the Law, if one truly loves another in the agape sense of showing compassion for their needs, one is effectively loving Christ, who as Son of God and Son of Man identifies himself with every human in need (Mt25 again). Now, if it were a matter of maintaining the letter rather than the spirit of the law, then it would be a case of “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jam2:10). That would be an issue if justification were on the basis of works or compliance with rules and regulations. Thanks to God’s grace and the fact that Jesus “abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” that is not and never has been the basis for justification, even for the Old Testament Jew (Hab2:4). For, I say again with Paul, “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal5:14; cf. Mt25:31-46).
So much of the above has been obscured by Augustine and the Reformers’ fundamental misunderstanding of Paul’s polemics concerning justification being on the basis of faith in Christ rather than Torah observance (i.e. works of the Law). Through a more detailed study of first century Judaism, aided by an analysis of the Dead Sea scrolls, this misreading of Paul has become more widely acknowledged, especially in scholarly Protestant circles where it is often referred to as “The New Perspective on Paul”. However, that particular endeavor does not of itself reconcile all of Paul’s teaching with Jesus’ or even Romans chapter two with the rest of his epistle for that matter.
Full coherence cannot be accomplished without returning once again to the role of natural law. In its anthropological context it pertains to God-given spiritual faculties provided to man which still function in spite of the Fall. Abel utilized them, Cain did not. One evinced he was a child of God, the other a plant of Satan (cf. Mt15:13; 1Jn3:12). Neither was (or could be) “saved” in the sense the New Testament means by that terms (cf. Jn6:53-54). Its precise meaning will be clarified as we proceed through Paul’s writings. In the process I aim to show that natural law is on occasions subsumed within aspects of Paul’s teaching whilst at other times is more explicit. But in the latter cases it can be obscured by passages or phrases either being poorly translated or just simply misunderstood. Such will be the case in the next post concerning the role of the conscience.
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Related post: Echoes of Scripture in Romans