Romans 2:17 – 3:8, Practice What You Preach

Romans 2:17 - 3:8, The Religious Are Guilty Before GodIntroduction

Paul is now turning to the third group of people that he will show are guilty before God – the outwardly religious. In Romans 1:18 – 32 Paul deals with the Gentiles who indulge in the “larger” sins. God pours forth his wrath as men suppress the truth of creation and he leaves them to the consequences and the effects of their sin.In Romans 2:1 – 16 there is another group of people that come in to view. Here is a group of people that have kept themselves from the “larger” sins. They could regard themselves as self-righteous, however they too are guilty before God, not having lived up to whatever light of God’s ways they have received, be it from conscience or the scriptures.

In Romans 2:17 – 3:6 Paul shows that the religious, and the direct application is to the Jews, are also guilty before a holy God. But of course, the religious today can rest upon outward signs and behaviour and lead themselves to hell thinking they are at peace with God. This passage has much we can learn from.

A Rich Heritage

“Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God.” Romans 2:17

Knowing God

To the Jew, knowing God meant they were part of God’s nation. We too, as believers can have that true attitude. God by His sovereign and unmerited grace has enabled us, not through what we have done, to worship Him. We are not deceived, are not being led astray. We can have a quiet satisfaction and peace in knowing that we are a believer. The righteousness of Christ will protect us in the coming Day of Judgment. Christ has died taking the full penalty of God’s wrath for our sins. We need not fear the eternal torment of Hell. The key here is that our place in God’s people is fully dependent on God’s undeserved grace to us.

But the trouble is, people can also say that they are a believer with the implication that they are better than others. Because they know the true God others had better listen carefully and do what they say because they have got access to God.  It is the thought of “I have greater knowledge; I’m more superior in that respect, I am a better person”. This is a false sense, based on man’s pride.

Knowing God’s Law

There is a true sense in which we can take a delight and a joy in the law of God.  Is it the rule of our lives?  It is God’s law the very thing that we try and follow, that we love, that we want to get to know, that we want to put into action in our lives?

But again, because of the sinfulness of man’s heart, our attitudes to God’s law can be corrupted.  The human heart is so deceitful that we can believe that a mere knowledge of God’s law, of being in a church and hearing it preached, can give us security before God. Poor delusional people believe that by following what they think is God’s law they can have eternal life.  I suspect Paul gives the game away when he says “They rest on the law.” They are trying to find their salvation in obedience to the law.  The only trouble is that we cannot perfectly live out God’s ways.  Our true rest is in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ because he has done everything to get us right with God.

Boasting In God

We can certainly boast in the truth of God’s greatness, of His love, of His faithfulness, of His wisdom. Look at the world around about us. Look at our own bodies, the incredible complexity.  We can boast in the wisdom and power and skill of a creator God.  There is a true sense in which we can boast in God and actually boast in our weaknesses.  It is we who are selfish, liable to think say and do that which is contrary to God’s law. We can boast in God’s greatness; we can boast in our weaknesses.

But again, there is a false sense in which we can boast in God.  When boasting about our relationship with God, as if it is something that we have attained, that we have a close relationship with Him based on our human effort.  “I am one of the elite who has got this,” – the false sense of boasting in ourselves and in our own strength, not acknowledging the sinfulness in the depths of our hearts.

Being Able to Discern God’s Will

“and know His will and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law” Romans 2:18

As a result of knowing God’s law, they regarded themselves as knowing what God delighted in, what was right and wrong before God. And yet, all too easily, the human heart can succumb.

“There are excellencies in religion which a hypocrite may approve of. There may be a consent to the practical judgments of the law, that it’s good, and yet that consent is overpowered by lust of the flesh and of the mind.  I see the better but pursue the worse.”  Matthew Henry

Always, there is the very temptation that when we know the excellencies and greatness of God’s law, that we let ourselves pursue the other.

Being a Light and a Guide to Others

“and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teachers of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.” Romans 2:19,20

They not only knew God’s law and had the ability to discern His will, but they could teach others and lead others on into the good things that are found in God’s law.  Many a Jew instructed in the temple or a synagogue must have considered themselves as an able guide to those not so privileged in knowing God’s law.

God gives teachers to His church; He wants His people equipped, the book of Ephesians tell us (Eph 4:11,12), for good works before Him, works that are right and true.  What is one of the means that God gives to equip His people for such things?  He gives them teachers that they might learn His word, learn His ways, being able to do His work, His way.  And yet human pride can always come in.

“The best work, when it is prided in, is unacceptable to God.  It is good to instruct the foolish, and to teach the babes, but considering our own ignorance and folly and inability to make these teachings successful without God, there is nothing to be proud of” Matthew Henry

But of course, it’s not just the Jews of old who could be self-righteous. We too can be legalistic, resting on our access to God’s word, taking a pride in the fact that we have a church that believes God’s word and will preach it.  There are subtle warnings for us all as we come to God’s word.  The Jews had a rich heritage knowing God and His law, discerning His will and being a light and a guide to others.  But the trouble was they didn’t live it out.  They were guilty of not teaching themselves.

A Rich Heritage Not Lived Out

Guilty of Not Teaching Self

“You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?”
Romans 2:21

If we consider ourselves capable of teaching others, others will consider us capable of teaching ourselves. People look to your life.  Often, our lives speak louder than our words.  Would you believe and follow a self-help anger management guru who keeps losing his temper?  You simply wouldn’t.  If there is anything in fortune telling, why don’t fortune tellers win the national lottery each week?  The world says,”If you want me to believe in your message, live it out; let me see it at work in your life.”  The Pharisees pulled down with their lives what they built up with their preaching.

“The greatest obstructers of the success of the word are those whose bad lives contradict their good doctrine, who in the pulpit preach so well that it is a pity they should ever come out; and out of the pulpit lived so ill that it’s a pity they should ever go in.”  Matthew Henry

Guilty of the Worst Offences

Paul charges the Jews with the worst of offenses, trying to wake them out of their complacency.

“You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?  You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery’, do you commit adultery?  You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” Romans 2:21, 22

We know that our Lord could say this of the Pharisees:

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you devour widows’ houses.” Matthew 23:14

The Pharisees were known to gain the confidence of the weak in society, like these widows, for their own financial gain and benefit.

The charge of adultery would have been shocking to the Jews. Marriage was a picture of the faithful relationship that should exist between the Lord and His people used time and time again in the Old Testament. This faithfulness of man and woman Paul takes up in Ephesians chapter 5 is a picture of Christ and His covenant love to the church.  To commit adultery typified the depths not only of the Gentiles’ sexual immorality, but also a complete disregard for God and His ways, trampling over this picture of God’s relationship between Him and His people.  Yet God judges the heart, the adulterous thought is as guilty before God as the external act.

The Jews may have hated idols, but in the Book of Malachi, God says this to His people:

“Will a man rob God?  Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed you?’  In tithes and offerings.  You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation.” Malachi 3:8,9

God had laid down clearly the principles expected in His law. The giving of the tithes to support the Levites and the priests, the very people that the average Israelite needed to make atonement for every sin, to bring him closer to God. God had laid down the principle:  “You bring forth your tithes so you can support the people who are bringing you closer to Me.”  Yet they hadn’t done it.

The very same thing is true today.  We give to support our church we also give to support the pastor. What is one of our pastor’s main roles?  Is to bring us closer to God; to teach God’s word that we might more better and more faithfully serve our God.  When we give, we are supporting those who are bringing us closer to God.

Guilty of Dishonouring God

“You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?”  Romans 2:23

There is a very close connection between the nature of God and His law.

“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, Am holy” Leviticus 19: 2

Israel was to reflect its God; as God is holy, Israel was to be Holy.  How were they to obtain this holiness?  God’s word is a reflection of His character. As we look into God’s word and absorb and do what we find there, we become, or we should become, holy like Him.  The law is a reflection of God’s holiness; dishonoring God’s law dishonors God’s holiness.  When we trample His law and say “No, thank you.  I don’t like that,” we are trampling God Himself and saying, “No, thank you.  I don’t want you.”

“For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, as it is written.” Romans 2:24

You can picture those that did not know God and do not have direct and straight access to His word, reasoning as follows:  “If the Jews behaved in such a wicked manner, their God must be wicked, as a people are like their God.  You steal, you commit adultery, you harm family relationships; is that what your God is like?  If your God does not restrain you or stop you from doing these things, how powerful is your God?”  Again there is the challenge for us – is our behavior leading to God being praised or blasphemed?

Separation From God

Disobedience separates the Circumcised (or Religious) From God

“For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law, but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become un-circumcision.”
Romans 2:25

Circumcision was an outward sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham.  It was a covenant of grace and promise.  God had called Abraham out of idolatry (Joshua 24:2,3).  Abraham once bowed down and worshipped false gods and God in His grace called Him out of that.  It was a covenant of promise; promise of a physical land, promise of descendants that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

God had established an inward covenant of grace involving obedience and faithfulness and circumcision was simply the outward sign of that.  What made the circumcision profitable for the Jew was the fulfillment of the conditions of faith and obedience.  Without these, they had no claim at all on the promises of God.  The obedient Gentile would condemn the disobedient circumcised Jew.  We have a wonderful illustration of that in Cornelius (Acts 10).  Cornelius was a Gentile who hadn’t had a close background with God (i.e. converting to Judaism). But through the Apostle Peter, he came to know the truth in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The obedient Gentile could judge the disobedient Jew.

True Circumcision, Obedience, Unites With God

“but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not for men, but from God.”  Romans 2:29

Inward circumcision of the heart – true circumcision – is a work of grace done by the Holy Spirit upon the heart of man.  It is administered by the Holy Spirit bringing new birth within the believer, the individual.  There is a humility and a submission before God.  Before the natural mind was at war with God, unable to submit to Him (Romans 8:7).  But when the spirit worked in the heart, obedience is placed there.  The contrast is clear.  It is between the word, the written letter that is powerless to save and indeed can only condemn, and the Spirit who can bring the new birth, repentance and apply the work of the Lord Jesus Christ to our lives and grant us that full salvation.

God’s Goodness and Faithfulness

The True Value of the Law

“What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way!  Chiefly because to them where committed the oracles of God.” Romans 3:1,2

The Jews are a people greatly privileged and honoured.  They have great means and great helps but these are not infallibly saving.  The Jews were custodians of the oracles of God – His word.  These contain not only the commandments that should have shown them their sin, but also the types, predictions, and promises concerning the Lord Jesus Christ – the means of salvation.  Those who believed would have found their peace with God.  We need to mix God’s word with faith and with obedience.

The Faithfulness of God

“For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?  Certainly not!  Indeed let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written. ’That You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when you are judged.” Romans 3:3, 4

Lastly, if God has given so much to His people and yet so many have turned away from Him, have dishonored Him, have trampled His name, would God give up on His people?

Let God be true but every man be a liar. Every man can disown God but God will stay true to Himself and be faithful.  The Jews who were faithful to Him and hence to what he had entrusted to them will certainly receive their promise.  Every Jew could reject God, but God will be true to His word.  He cannot change His nature. He is not a man that He should lie nor a son of man that he should change his mind (Numbers 23:19).  He is faithful in the midst of man’s faithlessness. This is a great comfort, and a warning!

“The God who was faithful to His promises is also faithful to his threats.  Divine faithfulness is a priceless comfort to the faithful; an earnest warning to those in danger of becoming unfaithful, and a harbinger of doom for those who continue to be untrustworthy.” William Hendrickson

God is faithful.  Turn to him, mix His word with faith and belief and obedience and you shall know great reward from Him. But if you don’t, you will know His wrath upon you.  The fact that God is faithful means that he is faithful to His promises and His threats. Where are you today?  Do you have faith in Jesus Christ, making Him Lord and Saviour, or are you still under God’s condemnation for your sin? There is a great and a wonderful God who wants us to come to Him, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Saviour.


All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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