Who goes first? Romans 2
Carrying on into Romans, we find both comfort and consternation, peace and problems, doom and delight. The chapter is the transition between Paul explaining in Romans 1 why the Gentiles are in need of a savior and headed to the next chapter where he explains why the Jews need a savior. Romans 2 gives us some helpful ideas to work with as we look at the need for salvation and the way to be saved.
1. Salvation is not about human judgment. This one has probably been an issue since the first apostolic sermon: Christians proclaim that some people are going to Hell. It is not, however, that Christians are deciding who is going and who is not going. The Word of God says plainly that every person violates God’s Law and, on top of that, knows it (or at least ought to know it). Romans 2 points out that no person has the right to judge another, because all are sinners. Someone proclaiming the Gospel is not judging any more than those legal notices in the paper are foreclosing on mortgages: the facts at hand are being stated. Want to avoid the foreclosure in the paper? Don’t call the Daily Planet. You have to call the bank.
Want to avoid eternal judgment? Don’t fuss that you were told it’s coming. Go to the One who can bring salvation.
2. Salvation is not about human judgment. Guess what? No matter how anyone else feels about you, they cannot keep you from God. Likewise, no matter how anyone else feels about you, they cannot force you to God. Nor do you have the power to keep away those you dislike. This is not about how you judge. Your likes and dislikes do not empower eternity. Neither does your approval: you may find someone moral and upright, but you cannot get them into eternity.
3. Salvation is not about human judgment. You may judge one people better or worse than another, but God’s blessing and God’s judgment will pass through all people. Some will be saved from all the earth, others will be judged. Being an American is no guarantor of salvation, being an American is no guarantor of judgment. It falls, as Romans 2:16, through Christ Jesus.
4. Salvation is not about human judgment. You judge one sin worse than another, but all sin separates people from God. Perhaps there are degrees of punishment in eternity, certainly there are degrees of consequence in this life—just as jabbing yourself in the leg with a scalpel is different than jabbing your eye. However, all sin separates us from God. Beyond knowing that reality, why bother sorting it out? As Dr. Einstein points out to Jonathan Brewster in the theological classic Arsenic and Old Lace, one guy ends up just as dead as the other—why stress about how quickly they died? A tad more focus on the big picture, that every individual person needs Christ for salvation, and a tad less on whether it’s because of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, or financial corruption would benefit the church of the Living God.
5. Salvation is not about human judgment. It is about divine grace and provision. About the kindness of God, intended to bring us to repentance. That’s the point. His kindness. His grace. Our repentance. There is nothing about God that needs to change, but all the ways in which we have turned from Him that we need to turn back.
So let’s turn our eyes from trying to judge. We will still be accused of being “judgmental” but that will likely never change. Herod didn’t care for John the Baptist’s judgmental attitude, either. Truth is what it is—declare it and go forward. And rather than stress about what order judgment or grace comes, because it is clear that Paul states that both came to the Jew first, recognize that Jesus coming first is all that matters.
Today’s Nerd Note: I am not going to take a firm eschatological viewpoint here, but the end of Romans 2 has a phrase or two that bears on the end-times. Or at least are thought to do so. Some hold that Paul’s references being a Jew is inward in Romans 2:28-29 mean that the end-times bear no distinction, that followers of Jesus are now who any end-times prophecies about “Jews” refer to.
I do not think that case can be made simply from this passage. Paul’s reference is clearly about the current issues of Law-following and salvation, not about end-times situations. If one wants to argue that the Church now fulfills all that Israel once did, then I think that has to come elsewhere. I think that Scripture holds up that the Church has a role and that Israel has a role, but that only through Jesus does salvation come.
That said, I don’t find a clear system I like for the end-of-the-world. Other than calmly knowing that no matter how bad it gets, eventually Jesus puts a stop to it all and His kingdom is forever. Do we need anything else?