Claiming to have fresh light to shed on Romans is like our planet claiming to have fresh light to shed on the sun. May the Lord's Word shed its light more fully on you and me!
In his descriptions of sin, Paul was not bound by Victorian taste, but by explicit candor, as we have just seen. Beginning in 1:28 Paul begins summarizing what he has been explaining concerning "all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (1:18). Cause-and-effect dominates the previous section: "... and their foolish heart was darkened .... (1:21), "and receiving in their own persons ... (1:27)." But the cause-and-effect was governed and presided over by the judicial actions by God: "God gave them over ... (1:24, 1:26, 1:28)." So the old proverb that evil brings its own punishment has to be modified: in specific ways, God gives them over to it.
So the summary Paul gives in 1:28 of the course of evil is that the behaviors of 1:29ff are the effects of "a depraved mind," (1:28), to which God gave them in response to their not seeing fit to have God in knowledge "any longer" (1:28). Any longer? Paul's critique of sin needs to be looked at more carefully here! We can't just skip to the lists! Sin is not analyzed completely simply by reading lists! Paul's explanation is that the behavior is caused by the depraved mind that God gave them over to. "Just as they did not see fit to have God in knowledge any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind" (1:28). The theme of a decline from original knowledge started back in 1:18, in the indictment of "men who suppress the truth."
The chapter indeed ends without Paul changing from his explanation, that the behavior and their minds are related as effect and cause, and the actions of God are involved in the explanation. This has something to say toward atheism, which we flatteringly and often take as a valid starting point by atheists, starting our apologetics toward them from there, as if atheism is merely a starting point. What might Paul say instead? He would talk as here, that an atheist "did not see fit to have God in knowledge." That's not ignorance. That's expulsion of knowledge. At the least we should be aware of possible signs of the expulsion of prior knowledge.
It is because we are well acquainted with sin, we tend to gloss over this idea of decline from a previous better condition, and of the idea of expulsion of knowledge. Plus, armed with psychological stories and experiences of how people do this all the time, we are numbed by familiarity: familiarity with the idea that people can push knowledge out of their minds. But have you ever thought about what kind of thing it is to "not see fit to have" an item of knowledge? It is not just to ignore something. It is to shove it out of your existence, with pride! To "not see fit to have" is to consider it unworthy of having. To promulgate this to others, you'd have to write a chapter in the sinner's how-to manual, on getting rid of God from your mind because He doesn't deserve to be in it ... and approving -- i.e., putting right in the middle of your mind (!), a set of those people who are approved -- which is those who practice sin (1:32)! Hearty approval of these replacements is the item of knowledge that replaces having God in your mind.
Does Paul conclude simply that the depraved mind approves of all those who "practice such things" that "are worthy of death" (1:32)? No. Sinners approve of other sinners, but not of every other sinner. Murderers approve of some other murderers, but murder others as well. The approval is extremely vacuous. And that's how Paul goes on, supplying the conclusion from the implied question, "well then, are we just a big happy self-congratulating group of people who all deserve death but are patting each other on the back all the way to it?" No.
The fact that men "did not see fit to ..." that Paul mentioned earlier, that attitude they had toward God, also becomes a judgment used against other men. There are plenty of other men that they did not see as fit. Paul goes on to describe the implications of that. There are implications of the fact that you, who "do the same," (1:32), "you judge another" (2:1): namely, how not seeing fit to have God in knowledge leads you to judging another.
In chapter 2, Paul in speaking about the judgment and justice of God is likely to be misunderstood because of two presuppositions that dog us: first, our comparative standards by which we judge others as pretty bad, and second, those same comparisons by which we judge some, and often ourselves, as pretty good. Paul addresses the first idea in 2:1-8.
Is Paul using an ad hominem argument here in 2:1ff, something like "you have no business judging, being who you are?" If that were true, it would take the force away from the words "the same things," and turn it into "similar things." No. This is not an ad hominem argument. Rather, Paul is talking about the self-reflexive nature of judging others, that it is ipso facto judging yourself for the same thing. Not that your judgment of others is invalid, but that its fingers point to you, doer of the same. Paul is not making an ad hominem that they have no right to judge, but extends the judgment they make about others, to apply also to themselves. Justice has to be blind toward, i.e. impartial toward, who it is that's it's judging. 2:1 is about having no excuse, which includes no excuse of the kind "I stole, but I didn't commit adultery." In speaking precisely here, Paul is rather saying that God's judgment is meted out precisely "according to the truth" (2:2 lit.), that is, according to the existence of the offense wherever it is. "There is no partiality with God" (2:12). Therefore since you "practice the same things" as an individual whom you are judging for a sin or sins, you ipso facto are judging yourself for practicing the same things.
This is further elaborated upon in 2:3. Not only do you condemn yourself, but the judgment of God is against you. Both you and God cannot be inconsistent. God isn't inconsistent But in 2:1, you are inconsistent without excuse: you cannot have justice fall another and not on "you, who judge" when it's the same thing. If you stole, but didn't commit adultery, it's "the same things."
The stubbornness and unrepentant heart of this judge, Paul takes as a given in 2:4. Why? Because the judge has discovered how to righteously judge others for sins that he or she does not do? No. The dividing up of sins of judge and those judged has not worked! God looks at those sins as "the same things!" What's stubborn is rather, to judge others for "the same things" (2:1) that you the judge actually do. It is the sameness of the sins that makes the judge stubborn (as if the justice won't be going to his own self for them as well as others), and the sameness of the sins that makes the judge unrepentant, because of ongoing doing of them himself.
So what then of the argument that the judge doesn't do those sins? The judge's imagined distinction vanishes, because Paul says they are "the same things." This is Paul's way of saying what James says in Jm 2:8-11, and the Lord in Matthew 5:21ff, especially Mt 5:21-26. They are "the same things."
In the contemporary Christian world, we have denied Romans 2 in at least the following way.
We think of ourselves as having a partial God, who has partiality toward us; when we judge another, not believing that God's judgment is according to truth against "those who practice such things" (2:2) without qualification. The surprise in Paul's words are that "you who judge practice the same things" (2:1). "You who judge," when you fancy that you practice other, or lesser things, or don't practice any sins at all! In effect, the judge substitutes a "some" into 2:6, as if Paul had said God will render to _some_ men according to their deeds, but not to you who judge ... or a "some" into 2:6, as if Paul had said God will render to every man according to _some_ of his deeds .... but not to all of yours the judge. When we judge, Paul exposes us as being practicers of "the same things," in that in which we judge another, so that argument's out. Every man is one of the "some" who practice such things, without excuse whenever he passes judgment upon another.
It's very odd, isn't it, how often the non-Christian under judgment by someone notices the air of the judge toward them, as one of having a God, but misrepresenting Him as having partiality. The standard "step 2" of evangelism, trying to show that "you are a sinner," has got to go back to a "we," and a genuine belief in Romans 2:6. Let's not be afraid to look at Romans together. Even if we discover that we have not lately genuinely believed Romans 2:6, or even ever really believed it.
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