The Justice and Judgment of God
"But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? . . . By no means! For then how could God judge the world?" (Romans 3:5-6, NRSV).
That God is a judge who holds every human being accountable to His law is a theme repeated again and again in the Scriptures. The apostle Paul elaborates on this theme in his letter to the Romans.
To be sure that we rightly understand Paul's reasoning, we need to remember Peter's caution not to misread Paul's words so as to make him seem to say something different from what he means. As Peter noted, in Paul's letters we at times find "some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16).
Too often such people read into Paul's words their own beliefs and ideas that are completely contrary to God's Word and even Paul's clear teaching. So it's crucial that we carefully read what Paul actually says instead of assuming that popular opinion is always right.
Many popular beliefs about what Paul taught are so biased against the Old Testament writings that they completely miss the point of Paul's letters.
As with his letter to the Galatians, Paul's letter to the Romans is misinterpreted regularly by commentators on the Bible. Because of their preconceived ideas against God's law, they misinterpret the words of Paul so as to make them seem hostile to the laws taught in God's Word.
A major purpose for Paul's writing to the Romans was to put an end to the problem of Christian gentiles and Jews judging one another. He wanted them to see that "we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" and will all be judged by the same standard (Romans 14:10; John 5:22-24).
God's justice knows no favorites
To make his point plain, Paul explains God's justice and how it relates to the justification of sinners, regardless of their race, culture or previous understanding of His law.
"For God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous" (Romans 2:11-13, NIV).
In the final judgment, every person's eternal destiny hinges on whether his disobedience to God's law is forgiven because of his personal repentance and his genuine faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Redeemer. All who refuse to meet those conditions will be judged as unrepentant sinners and condemned.
In Rome some of the gentile converts (possibly only a few of the total number) were judging the Jews. Likewise, some of the Jews were judging gentile converts.
Paul wanted them to understand that, when it comes to judgment, God has no favorites. All are guilty of sin. All must repent of sin—of breaking God's law—and be justified by Christ's blood to receive forgiveness. There is no other path to gaining God's favor.
So Paul explains: "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
"Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you towards repentance?" (Romans 2:1-4, NIV).
Two things stand out in these remarks. First, God requires repentance of everyone who seeks forgiveness. Second, He still judges everyone by "truth."
Since God also judges all men without favoritism, ignorance of the law does not excuse anyone from the condemnation the law imposes for sin. Even those who have sinned in ignorance will perish (verse 12) if they refuse to learn the truth, if they are unwilling to quit transgressing the law.
Only sinners who repent by showing a willingness to be "doers of the law" (verse 13) may be justified by God's grace. This applies to Jews and gentiles alike, without favoritism being shown to either.
To emphasize this point, Paul in the first part of the book of Romans covers three crucial aspects of how sin relates to God's justice: (1) sin is universal and all peoples are guilty, (2) sin is caused primarily by fleshly weaknesses (see James 1:14-15) and (3) sin's consequence—when viewed from the point of view of the final judgment—is eternal death.
Why most Jews did not accept Jesus
By the time Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans, most Jews were refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah. His first coming was not that of the conquering king they had expected. This made Him a "stumbling block" to them (Romans 11:9).
Therefore Paul is putting in place the needed background to God's justice so he can address effectively, in chapters 9 through 11, one of the questions that originally prompted this letter. That question was, "Has God cast away His people?" His answer: "Certainly not!" (Romans 11:1).
Paul makes it plain that God has not permanently rejected the Israelites, including the Jews of that time, because they had rejected the Messiah. Nor has God abandoned any of the promises that He had made to them.
Rather, He is calling in this present age only "a remnant" of Israel as His "elect"—with the remainder staying spiritually blinded (verses 5, 7). That blindness of "the rest" will not end until Christ returns.
Therefore that blindness is temporary—only a "blindness in part . . . until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (verse 25). What that means is that during this present age only a small portion of the people of Israel is now being called to repentance.
Israel's future salvation
So Paul then quickly points out that in the future "all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer [Jesus Christ] will come out of Zion, and He will [at His second coming] turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins'" (verses 26-27).
God has a time frame for leading all people to repentance and salvation. Only a relative few are being called in this present age.
Those few, chosen from all nations, will be resurrected from the dead when Christ returns to assist Him in teaching "the rest" of those who are still blinded. "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6). God has set aside this millennial period plus the period described in Revelation 20:11-13 to bring the majority of "the rest" of humanity to repentance.
At that time this prophecy of Isaiah about the city of Jerusalem will become a reality: "And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed" (Isaiah 1:26-28, NRSV)
Why was understanding this so important at the time Paul was writing his letter to the church in Rome? It was because an anti- Jewish attitude, which at that time was affecting the Christian gentiles in Rome but later spread to the whole world, needed to be confronted.
Paul wanted to defeat the very idea that God was rejecting His people Israel. He addressed this issue when he wrote the book of Romans. But after his death it emerged again and is known today as "replacement theology." It is the popular notion that God has been replacing the Jews, as His covenant people, with gentile converts.
Gentiles must be "grafted" into Abraham's family
Therefore Paul strongly rejected the idea that God is replacing the nation of Israel—including the Jews of the first century—as His covenant people. Rather, gentile converts are "grafted" into the root of Israel (Romans 11:17-19). The "root" or ancestor of Israel was Abraham, to whom God made the promise that the Messiah would come from his descendants.
The hope of the gentiles, therefore, lies in sharing the heritage promised to the Israelites, not in replacing them or receiving a different heritage apart from them. As Paul had explained to the Christians of Galatia: "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29).
As was explained above, a major factor in Paul's reasoning is that during "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4), God is not calling the majority of either Jews or gentiles to repentance. So he argues that the gentile converts should not assume that their calling means that God has "cast away" the physical descendants of Israel (whether living, deceased or to be born in the future).
Most human beings, Jews and gentiles alike, will be called to repentance—for the purpose of receiving salvation—only after Christ returns. In fact, many of them will wait in their graves, with no consciousness of the passing of time, until the resurrection from the dead that Ezekiel prophesied (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
Revelation 20:5 confirms that resurrection in the New Testament and explains that it will take place after the first thousand years of Jesus Christ's reign on earth is ended. The ultimate and greatest fulfillment of the New Covenant prophesied in Ezekiel and other places will take place after the return of Christ. (For more details, please request or download at www.ucg.org/booklets our free booklet What Happens After Death?)
This future resurrection is one of the reasons Paul instructs the Christian gentiles not to "boast" as if they were replacing the Israelites in God's salvation plan ( Romans 11:18). He wanted them to see why they, like the broken-off natural branches of Israel, should humbly see themselves as mercifully "grafted" into the "olive tree" of Abraham's heirs (verses 13-25). They had no cause for boasting.
Paul also emphasizes that all past promises made to Israel will be fulfilled because "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (verse 29). God never breaks His promises.
When Jesus Christ returns, the natural descendants of Israel will submit to His rule (Jeremiah 23:3-6). At that time God will confirm the New Covenant with them as a nation, as His chosen people whom He has not rejected (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Also at that time, God will write His laws in their hearts and minds (verse 33), transforming them into His chosen nation of spiritually capable teachers. As a converted nation, they will be able to help Jesus Christ teach all the nations of the world how to put into practice the ways of God, including His law (Isaiah 2:3; Zechariah 8:22-23). Every promise made to Israel will be fulfilled.
The rejection of Jews after Paul's death
Why was confirming God's faithfulness to the promises He made to Israel so important that Paul wanted all gentile converts to understand it?
History gives us the answer. Within less than a century following his death, the division that Paul had attempted to prevent between Jews and gentiles in Christianity began to take place on a massive scale.
The bulk of gentile converts—by then most were "Christians" in name only—rejected the role of Israel in God's salvation plan and abandoned the law of God. They chose to regard themselves as the replacements of the Jews. Once that false concept became embedded in their beliefs, they became easy targets for other deceptions.
Most of those deceptions still influence the major branches of Christianity until this day (for more details, request our free booklet The Church Jesus Built).
This transition marked the beginning of a new theological viewpoint that not only rejected the Jews but also became critical of almost everything that was perceived to be "Jewish"—including the Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. (For more on how this "replacement theology" affected Christianity after Paul's death, be sure to read "The Corruption of Apostolic Christianity" on page 109.)
The distortion of justification through Christ
It now should be easier to understand Paul's reason for addressing the judging problem among Christians in Rome. If they failed to correctly understand the reason for their calling, Paul knew they would soon be headed for disaster.
So he explains, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (Romans 2:1, NRSV). Each group's eligibility for justification was on the same basis—through Jesus Christ (verse 26), not because one group was superior to the other.
In Romans 4, Paul refers to the example of Abraham, whose faith moved him to obey God (Hebrews 11:8). His purpose is to help the gentile converts to realize that obeying God's commandments is an essential part of repentance.
Paul agrees with James that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17, NIV). So Paul explains how Abraham's faith should be viewed as the basis of his obedience, rather than his obedience being the basis of his faith (Romans 4:13; compare James 2:18-24). Abraham understood clearly that He needed help just to be able to obey God. He did not obey God to receive faith, rather God gave Abraham faith so he could and would obey Him.
Abraham's natural descendants through his grandson Jacob, however, did not follow his example of obedient faith. By the time of Paul, their confidence was based mostly on an inaccurate perception of their superior righteousness.
As a result, most Jews were unable to see their desperate need for justification through Christ. They were anticipating a King who would expel the Roman army and exalt them to the prominence they thought they deserved, not a Savior who could take away their sins.
So Paul explains, in Romans 5:1-17, the benefits of being justified though faith. Those benefits include "peace with God" (verse 1), direct access to Him by faith (verse 2) and the "gift of righteousness"—made possible through a pardon for past guilt and the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 17).
Without those gracious benefits, no one can please God. So repentance, forgiveness of sins through Christ's shed blood and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit are the essentials for becoming a righteous people.
Or, as Paul explained, "Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).
The right response to God's mercy
Becoming a new person, transformed by the power of God's Spirit, is the objective Paul wanted to make the main focus of the Christians in Rome. He was trying to get them to fully comprehend that this walk in "newness of life" is accomplished by obeying God from the heart.
Only those who are forgiven on repentance and led by the Holy Spirit into the obedient way of life revealed in God's spiritual laws and teachings will succeed in that spiritual walk. So Paul continues: "Do you not know that to whom you yield yourselves as slaves for obedience, you are slaves to him whom you obey; whether it is of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness"(verse 16, Modern King James Version).
Then, as a result of "having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (verses 22-23).
Paul begins Romans 7 with the example of a married woman's release from any lawful claim to her by her husband once he is dead. His death releases her from that marriage. By comparison, he explains that "you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ . . ." (verse 4).
Notice that Paul does not say that the law is dead. Rather, we become dead to the law on repentance. That is, the law's claim on our life as the penalty for breaking it is considered met through Jesus Christ's sacrificial death in our place.
Paul's point is that, like the woman released from the specific law binding her to her former husband, we through Jesus' death may be released from the law's specific requirement of death for past sins. As a response, "we should bear fruit to God," in contrast to bearing "fruit to death" (Romans 7:4-5).
This release is only from the condemnation to death that the law imposes on all sinners. It is not a release from any obligation to respect and practice the righteous way of life defined by the law.
Paul summarizes it this way: "But now we have been delivered from the law [from its condemnation to death], having died to what we were held by [ condemnation for having sinned], so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter [of the law, as if we were still under its legal condemnation]" (verse 6).
His point is that the right approach to obeying God after we are forgiven is to exceed the mere letter of the law (compare Matthew 5:20). We should obey it according to its intent (or spirit), not by doing only the bare minimum of what is explicitly stated. It serves us as our guide for attaining truly righteous thinking and behavior.
Bringing our fleshly weakness under control
Once he establishes that we are to walk in newness of life by resisting the temptation to sin, Paul begins to address how we can overpower the weaknesses of our fleshly nature, with its evil desires, though the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the remainder of Romans 7 Paul uses himself as an example, describing his own battle with the same fleshly desires and impulses that can tempt us to sin. He contrasts his high regard for God's law with the pulls toward evil he has had to struggle against in his own flesh.
"So then, the law in itself is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good. Are we therefore to say that this good thing caused my death? Of course not! It was sin that killed me, and thereby sin exposed its true character: it used a good thing [the law] to bring about my death, and so, through the commandment, sin became more sinful than ever. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am not: I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin" (verses 12-14, REB).
This weakness within all of us, not a weakness in God's law, is the problem that both Jews and gentiles have to acknowledge, combat and solve with the help of God's Spirit. It is a personal battle that can be won only with the help of God's Spirit.
Notice how plainly Paul explains this: "I discover this principle, then: that when I want to do right, only wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive in my outward actions a different law [the powerful pulls of the flesh], fighting against the law that my mind approves, and making me a prisoner under the law [the constant pull] of sin which [without the power of God's Spirit] controls my conduct" (verses 21-23, REB).
Rescued from our sinful nature
He then asks, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (verse 24, NRSV). Then he answers his own question, "Thanks be to God [that rescue will come] through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (verse 25, NRSV). Good intentions are not enough to conquer the selfish pulls of our flesh without the assistance supplied by Jesus Christ, our High Priest (verse 25, last part).
So Paul continues: "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law [the constant presence] of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2).
The "law of sin and death" isn't God's law. Here Paul uses the Greek word for "law" in the sense of a dominating power or influence to contrast the struggle between our fleshly nature and God's law and Spirit as to which side will exercise control over our behavior. Paul's point is that we must receive spiritual power from God to rule over our human weaknesses:
"For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (verses 3-4).
God's Spirit enables us to choose and do what His law requires. With that divine help to overcome our natural, fleshly weaknesses, "the righteous requirement of the law" can now "be fulfilled in us" (verse 4).
"Freedom" to Paul was freedom from the domination of man's fleshly nature and freedom from the condemnation to death by forgiveness of sin. He deeply believed God's promise, "I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws" (Ezekiel 36:27, NIV).
In his concluding remarks to the Christians in Rome, he notes and praises their obedience: "For your obedience has become known to all" (Romans 16:19). To him it is " obedience to the faith" which "by the prophetic Scriptures" has been "made known to all nations" (verse 26).
Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul never wavers in teaching that faith produces obedience to God's Word. The main thrust of his message is always that "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:7-8, NASB).
He wanted the Romans to understand that only a "new heart"—which is the core of the New Covenant—can enable one to obey God from the heart!
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