In 2 Samuel 12 we read of one of the most cunning confrontations in Scripture. David, the king, who could have basically anything (and, frankly, any woman) he wanted, had actually taken the wife of one of his soldiers, and committed adultery. And he had kept it a secret, going to great lengths, even having her husband killed, to cover it up. Then, after the man’s death, he took this man’s wife for himself, even as he had earlier taken her from him in the act of adultery. And it remained a secret with David. But the Lord knew, and it displeased him. So, one night the Lord revealed what had happened to his prophet, Nathan, and had him go confront David about his sin.
That’s straightforward enough. But the problem is that not everyone handles confrontation about their own sin well, and being the king and one who’d seemingly successfully hidden his sin, David may well have been tempted to be more defensive than most about his sin. So instead of being direct in his confrontation over David’s sin, Nathan tells David about the actions of “another” man.
He tells David about a rich man who had many flocks and many herds. Any time he wanted to eat meat at night, he’d have many, many flocks and herds from which to choose. And there was another man, a poor man, who had nothing except one little lamb. He’d bought this lamb when the lamb was a baby, and brought it up, growing up with him and his children as if he were part of the family. In fact, though it might feel over the top, the man would share his bread with this lamb, let him drink from his own cup, and fall asleep in his arms. Needless to say, this man loved this lamb.
Well, one night a traveler comes through town to stay with the rich man. And the rich man decides he will serve him a nice meal, but the problem is, the rich man would rather not use one from among his many herds and flocks, so instead he takes the poor man’s one, precious, treasured lamb and prepares it for his traveler.
And at this point, David is enraged so that he says, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5-6). And then Nathan drops the hammer, saying, “You are the man!”
I wanted to remind us of that episode between Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12 because I think that’s a good picture of what’s going on in the text we’re looking at this morning, Romans 2:1-11. In the previous section we looked at, Romans 1:18-32, Paul had been arguing that even if a man has never read a page of the Scripture, not having the law of God, he is not to be deemed as ignorant of God and innocent of rejecting God. In fact, all men everywhere know that God exists because God has made himself known in the created order. And this includes every Gentile who doesn’t have the law but can observe the creation around him. He knows God exists, but he has rejected God’s revelation and turned instead to idolatry and a life of all kinds of unrighteousness.
And now you could imagine as Paul argues this, some unbelieving Jew, sitting over in the corner saying, “That’s right, Paul. Tell those disgusting Gentiles who weren’t privileged to be given the law of Moses that they are guilty, sinful, and worthy of judgment,” much like David was so quick to tell Nathan that the rich man in his story deserved to die. But then, like Nathan, Paul says to that Jew who might think himself free from God’s wrath simply because he is a Jew and among those who were given the law, “Not so fast.” After all, Paul’s goal in 1:18-3:20 is to show that all men, both Jew and Gentile, are justly under God’s wrath, whether they’ve read the law or haven’t.
Therefore, in order to show why it is true that all unbelieving Jews and Gentiles are justly under God’s wrath, Paul turns, starting in chapter 2 to focus on unbelieving Jews, looking at the nature of God’s judgment. And the reason Paul needs to focus on the nature of God’s judgment is because if you don’t realize that God’s judgment is just and impartial, then you might be tempted to presume that he’ll overlook things in your life that are worthy of punishment simply because you think you’re special or unique enough that God will excuse you. But as long as you think that way, you’ll never see your need for Christ and trust in the gospel.
So, this morning, I want us to see what Paul shows us about the judgment of God. And the first thing we see in our text is that:
God’s judgment demands repentance
That is to say, God’s judgment doesn’t allow exceptions for any thinking human being. We saw that last week in that God reveals himself to mankind in the created order. It’s not the case that just because you have certain parents or familial heritage, attend some church, etc. that God will say, “Though you deserve hell, I’m going to give you a special exception because, well, you’re you, and we all know you get to be an exception.”
And if anyone would be tempted to think that, it could be a Jew. After all, the Jews had been the people that God chose to reveal himself to in a special way out of all the peoples on the face of the earth in the Old Testament. They were given the law. It was to them that he’d entered into a covenant relationship with and made promises to. It was through them that he’d brought the Messiah into the world. Consequently, some Jews may well have wrongly concluded that in the end God was just going to give them some special exemption, as he was judging all the unbelieving Gentiles.
But Paul shatters this misconception, saying, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” (vv. 1-3).
You see, unbelieving Jews behave the same way as unbelieving Gentiles. They may be able to say, “We were given the law. We received the promises. Abraham was our father. The Messiah came through our line.” But in the end, if they don’t repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, they will be condemned. And by pointing out that they’re thinking, acting, and living in the same way as the Gentiles they’re judging (thinking, those wicked people are going to hell) Paul is noting that they too are unbelievers, under God’s wrath, which will be poured out in full measure on the day of judgment.
But if we’re a reader of the Old Testament we may well be tempted to say, “Hold on a second. The Jews were a special people to God, and God did show them all manner of kindness in the Old Testament Scriptures.” I mean, it wasn’t like the Jews were some kind of great people when they were enslaved by the Egyptians. So, when God took the lives of the firstborn of the Egyptians and delivered the Jews, it seemed that he was showing great kindness to the Jews. When he brought them into a land that was occupied by other people, the Lord drove out the others and gave the Jews this land. That seems to be a severe level of kindness he’s showing them. Not only that, but though the Jews provoked him by their disobedience to his commands, he waited year after year after year, showing them great patience and forbearance that he didn’t seem to show many Gentiles. And we could go on and on. So, what do we do with all of this kindness and patience and forbearance he showed the Jews throughout the Old Testament? Shouldn’t we interpret this to mean that God is willing to ignore their sin and excuse them from judgment?
Well, Paul answers in verse 4, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
The Lord’s particular kindness has been lavished on the Jews with a purpose in mind. He was showing them kindness so that they might repent. But when any Jew refuses to repent, they will face God’s wrathful judgment, just like an unrepentant Gentile will. Thus, Paul concludes, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (v. 5).
In other words, no matter what your background, ethnicity, familial connection, or the like, the call is the same. God demands repentance from everyone, or else they will bear God’s wrath on the day of judgment. In fact, every day an unbeliever goes without repenting, it’s as if they have a huge balloon above their head that is constantly storing up more and more wrath, and one day it’ll burst upon them. God’s judgment demands repentance, from everyone. And by repentance, Paul means a turning from sin and self-reliance to faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, for there is no other name whereby men may be saved. As Paul said in Acts 17:30-31, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” God’s judgment demands repentance. But that’s not all Paul wants his readers to understand about the nature of God’s judgment. He also wants them to see that:
God’s judgment will be just and impartial
This truth was somewhat implied in the last point. If he judges Jews the same as Gentiles, demanding repentance from each, then we can say already that Paul has shown us that God’s judgment on that final day will be just and impartial. But Paul makes it explicit in the text. At the end of verse 5 Paul speaks of the day of wrath “when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” And in verse 11, he explicitly states, “God shows no partiality.”
In the verses between (vv. 6-10) Paul outlines his basis or evidence for asserting that God’s judgment is just and impartial. And he begins by saying in verse 6, “He will render to each one according to his works.” That is, he will judge mankind on that final day according to their works.
Now, before diving in to a number of issues that this probably brings to our minds, let’s first ask how this assertion that God will render to each one his judgment according to their works grounds the assertion in verse 5 that God’s judgment is righteous and supports the claim in verse 11 that it’s impartial. Well, here is how I think the argument works. If God were to simply ignore any works and simply pronounce judgment, then one could fairly ask, “How is this judgment just?” But if he judges in accord with works that he can point to, then clearly he is supplying vindication for why he is pronouncing the judgment he is. It’s like a judge who says, “You’re guilty because …” and then proceeds to provide a list of evidence that shows a man’s guilty or says, “You’re acquitted because …” and then provides a list of evidence that shows a man’s innocence. The fact that the judge shows his judgment is in accord with works done by the individual, whether good or evil, vindicates that the judge’s judgment is just.
I think this makes sense to us. And the text even continues to read like this. Paul speaks of those who do good as inheriting glory and honor and life and those who do evil as bearing wrath. He writes in verses 7-8, “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”
That is, to the one who lives an obedient life, setting his sights on attaining glory and honor and immortality from the Lord, the Lord will give eternal life. But to the one who merely lives this life for himself and does not obey God, that one will bear the Lord’s wrath.
Then he basically repeats himself in verses 9-10, saying, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.”
Again, this is straightforward. However, it’s not the difficulty of understanding this argument that causes us problems, is it? What causes us problems is the argument of the rest of the Bible and even other sections of the book of Romans where Paul makes clear that we’re not judged on the basis of having done enough good or avoided enough evil but on the basis of faith in the finished work of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ whereby we’re forgiven of our sins and his righteousness is credited to us.
If that’s true (and it is), then how does that square with this text? Let’s see if I can answer that question. Well, though it is true that we are justified by faith, judgment scenes in the Bible seem to indicate that final judgment will be according to works. Think, for example, of the final judgment scene we looked at just a few weeks ago in Matthew 25. The goats are condemned with Jesus saying, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” etc. Similarly, to the sheep, he welcomes them into his kingdom, saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” and so on. That is, this is a scene of judgment according to works. And that is standard in the Scripture. Judgment on that final day is in accord with works? But why.
I think the answer, if you think about it, makes sense. When God justifies us by faith, our end-times judgment is already provided for us in this life. You and I, as we repent and believe, are declared righteous (credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ) through faith. And again, that is our true final verdict before God, announced now in this life, at the moment of faith. When we appear in final judgment, then (which is done before all men), the purpose of that judgment scene is not to determine God’s judgment of mankind as much as to announce it and vindicate it as a righteous judgment. And the way that God vindicates that his sheep are welcome into his kingdom is by pointing to the good that has flowed from their lives. They fed him when he was hungry, etc. And the way he’ll vindicate his judgment of the wicked to eternal wrath is by pointing to their lack of good and presence of wickedness.
Thus, our final appearance at judgment as believers is less about hearing our verdict. We’ve already received it in our justification. It’s more about God vindicating his judgment of the righteous and the wicked by pointing to the fruit of faith or fruit of unbelief in their lives. And because these verses are about vindicating that God is a righteous and impartial judge Paul points to the fact that God will “render to each one according to his works” (v. 6).
But how, we might ask, does God know that there will be the fruit of obedience or the fruit of disobedience in the lives of those whom he has justified or condemned? That is, how can God be sure if you and I believe today and are justified that we’ll have good works in our lives that he will be able to point to on the day of judgment? The answer is that though faith alone justifies, justifying faith never comes alone. It inevitably brings forth the fruit of obedience in our lives. This was part of the promise of the New Covenant, not only that we would be forgiven of our sins but that the Spirit would come to indwell us, change our hearts, and cause us to walk in the Lord’s ways. And this is why Jesus will tell us that we can judge a tree by its fruit, for a good tree will bear good fruit and a bad tree will bear bad fruit.
Therefore, showing us that God’s judgment is in accord with our works, he shows the one who might presume that God will show him special favor that God is a righteous and impartial judge, and in final judgment, he will vindicate his judgment as just and impartial before all men. And there’s one more thing I want us to see about God’s judgment, namely,
God’s judgment will be glorious and furious
Later in this very letter Paul will say, “Note then the kindness and severity of God” (11:22). That’s what I’m reminded of when Paul speaks of these two possible endings for man. As Paul notes, to those “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (v. 7). And for everyone who does good there will be “glory and honor and peace” (v. 10). On the other hand, “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (v. 8). And, in verse 9, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil.”
The Bible throughout holds up this reality that humans will face one of two endings. John tells us in 5:28-29, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” In Matthew 25, the judgment scene we referenced earlier, the sheep go into the kingdom of God while the goats will hear, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And in the book of Revelation, though the saints die, we find life, while the unbeliever, though he may see a lack of persecution in this age will only face the wrath of the lamb called a second death. And we could go on.
But the point I want us to understand is that the idea of resurrection to judgment or resurrection to life, or heaven or hell, or new creation to eternal torment were not just categories developed by revivalistic preachers over the last few centuries. There’s much about the travelling revivalists preachers methods that I don’t think are best, but his preaching that there is a glorious blessing or furious judgment at the end of this life is not one of his creations. It’s the teaching of the Bible itself.
We will know glory with our Lord or we will know his wrath and fury forever. And this is one more reason why we must be a people who have the gospel on our lips. Our God is a righteous judge who demands repentance. He will bless with life those who repent and believe and will judge with wrath and fury those who do not repent and believe. But the means by which men will repent and believe is by hearing and responding to the message that God’s Son took on flesh, lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and was raised on the third day so that by repentance and faith we might have life. Therefore, let us pray that we might more deeply feel the eagerness to preach the glorious gospel that Paul felt, and let us give thanks this morning that one day, for those of us trusting in Christ, that we’ll hear, “Enter into my kingdom,” knowing that it’s all of gift of God’s grace. Let us give thanks now as we come to the table. Amen.