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Our Efforts to Be "Good" Are Insufficient - Romans 2:17-29

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

[Commentary on Romans 2:17-29] Everyone has broken God’s law, whether they know it or not, and there is no “partial credit” for obeying parts of God’s law. The Jews were wrong to think highly of themselves simply for being Jews—God doesn’t care about their parentage or even behavior; He cares about their heart. Has it been changed by the Spirit?

Circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter. Romans 2:29

[Editor's note: this Bible study series started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]


Changing the Game.

You’ll want to tailor this to whatever hobby a number of your class members share. Technology is advancing very quickly, and its adoption is resulting in significant changes in just about every hobby we have—often equipment, which leads to changes in rules, which leads to changes in tactics; or video replay, which leads to changes in coaching. (I’ll use sports for an example.) The point here would be to establish that every change in rules and tactics results in confusion, concern, and sometimes hostility.

Analytics Revolution (new school vs. old school). Every major sport is experiencing the effect of analytics. Sometimes it’s so profound that the rule makers have to stop it (like when swimming had to outlaw certain swimsuits). Sometimes it takes a while for everyone to understand the impact. Baseball. Among other things, analytics led to a dramatic increase in defensive shifts. Coaches responded by encouraging their batters to go for one of the “three true outcomes” (walk, strikeout, homerun—none of which involve the defense). This has led to an increase in strikeouts and homeruns, and it’s made the game less enjoyable to watch because there is less “action”. Basketball. Mark D’Antoni is the coach of the Rockets, the team that has decided that since 3 is more than 2, we should take more three-pointers than two-pointers. Over the last few years, the Rockets have obliterated records for three-point attempts. (D’Antoni was also the architect of the revolutionary “7 seconds or less” Phoenix Suns.) But some people have complained that watching ball players chuck long shots and attempt to draw fouls (because free throws are easier than defended shots) isn’t fun. Football. Changes come more slowly in football, but we’re starting to see the impact of innovations such as the spread option, the read option, going for it on 4th down, and going for 2. This has mostly affected running backs, of which teams are deciding they can be replaced quickly and cheaply, but the effect on the viewer experience is starting to be noticed (which is why the XFL was started). Truly, some of these changes are happening simply because people today are bigger, faster, and stronger than in the past, and they are better-trained. But regardless of why, the point is that changes are happening and people line up on both sides in responding to the changes.


Once you establish that changes are happening in all of our hobbies (the equipment, the rules, or how we do them), and you establish that some people like the changes and some people don’t (which shouldn’t be hard), step back to a bigger picture. Are there not similar, difficult changes happening in our very societies? Now imagine Paul telling Jews that the heart of their lives—the law—was changing into something new. That may help your class appreciate why Paul put so much emphasis on this topic.


This Week's Big Idea: Common Crimes, Offenses, and Hypocrisy

Paul goes off on the Jews for being hypocrites—specifically for claiming to be “all that” for having The Law but not actually following it all that closely. Not only are they hypocrites, but they’re blasphemers because they give God a bad name in the world. We’ve used this topic before, but it never hurts to bring it back up: Christians are hypocrites too.


You would start this discussion (whenever you use it) with a question like “What are the most common ways Christians are hypocrites?” If you need to prime the pump, use:

  • Christians that claim to believe the Bible but still gossip and grumble and be negative;

  • Christians that claim to have the Holy Spirit but display little joy, love, or compassion;

  • Christians that claim to be saved (not all do) but believe there are other ways to be saved;

  • Christians that believe in grace but talk as if there are certain rules/norms that have to be followed.

There aren’t many statistics out there on gossiping and showing compassion. (I can say that only 25% of professing Christians in America believe Jesus is the only way to be saved, and that’s really not good.) Here are some statistics that I can find that might make a non-Christian think that Christians are hypocrites (let’s just go with perception for this illustration):

  • 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce (this is a great example of “perception”; a deeper dive into those numbers shows that active, church-going Christians are divorced less than 25% of the time; it’s the in-name-only Christians who get divorced at 50%; but the outside world doesn’t care about that distinction).

  • 37% of professing Christians rarely go to church.

  • 70% of women who have an abortion claim to be Christian (that’s not good for the perception of the outside world, but I think the more important side of that number is that 65% of them believe that the church judges single women who are pregnant; see the problem?).

  • 80% of Christians do not consistently share their faith (these numbers are actually very difficult to pin down; it depends heavily on where you’re located and if your church is Mainstream or not; but still, studies agree that too few Christians evangelize regularly).

  • Christians give 2.5% on average to their church.

Statistics like these don’t “prove” anything. And when you get to the end of this discussion, make sure your class understands that the only finger they need to point is at themselves. But here’s the point to establish: the outside world has plenty of reasons to believe that churches are filled with hypocrites. Just as Paul crushed Jews for blaspheming God by their hypocrisy, we need to realize the huge impact that our behavior has on the non-believing world. We need to live what we say we believe; we need to help one another do so.

Our Context in Romans

Let me just summarize this section of Romans so you can easily explain to your class why Paul seems to be hitting this subject over and over again:


Part 1 (chapters 1-4): What is the Gospel? It is Justification by Faith. Why do we need to be justified? Because all people are in sin, and God is wrathful toward sin (chapter 1). But the Jews, even though they are God’s chosen people and have the law, are also under God’s wrath because they too have sinned (chapter 2). In fact no one is righteous! But God has been faithful to His people by providing a means of justification—the twist is that God has provided this means to all people, not just Jews (chapter 3). Further, justification is not by following the law, but by having faith in God. Abraham is the prime example (chapter 4).


The next section of Paul’s argument (chapters 5-8) explains the assurance provided by the gospel. Paul then takes an aside to cover the relationship between Israel and the gospel in more detail (chapters 9-11). And his final section explains what the gospel should look like in one’s conduct (chapters 12-15).

Part 1: Hypocrisy Revealed (Romans 2:17-24)

Now if you call yourself a Jew, and rely on the law, and boast in God, and know his will, and approve the things that are superior, being instructed from the law, and if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the ignorant, a teacher of the immature, having the embodiment of knowledge and truth in the law—you then, who teach another, don’t you teach yourself? You who preach, “You must not steal”—do you steal? You who say, “You must not commit adultery”—do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob their temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written: The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.

Here’s what Paul is saying in a nutshell: “You Jews, you have rejected God’s free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ because you’re determined to justify yourself before God by your behavior. How’s that going for you?” Apparently, Jewish arrogance was a thing. Paul talks about the foolishness of being boastful a number of times in his letters (most famously to Corinth), and he is so very right. The very fact that Jews think they can be justified by keeping the law proves just how much they need the gospel!


The comment about “relying on the law” immediately sets up the contrast between faith and works. Paul is going to come back to that again and again. The Jewish position did two things: it rejected the possibility of salvation in Jesus (really, a direct rejection of God), and it embraced the possibility of salvation in self—self-justification through good works. As I say in the Focus on the next page, Paul is not just referring to the words in the old covenant as “law”; he’s talking about the lifestyle that Jews adopted for themselves and the boastful attitude it resulted in. God gave the Jews the law to they could know Him and “know His will” which is exactly what the law accomplished. But as the prophets declared over and over again, the Jews misunderstood the purpose. They thought it was because they were special and superior, so they could “lead” the poor, ignorant Gentiles living in darkness (understood in a sarcastic, condescending way) rather than share the hope of God’s mercy with them. They treated the law as an end in itself—something for them to know and feel good about.


People do this all the time, especially today. Advertisers are all about “creating a community” that people want to be a part of, whether it’s through consuming a certain product, working for a certain company, going to a certain school, etc. I wear the right athletic shoes; that makes me special. I’m into this certain type of music; that makes me special. Ask your class if they are aware of any cliques of any kind around them and what makes them problematic. Make it clear—it’s fine to want to feel good about your workplace or preferences or whatever! When does it become a problem? When that focus becomes an end in itself, a source of arrogance and boasting, and results in no attempt to do anything positive for the rest of the world. “We’re Jews, and we’re better than you.” But no “And we care about you.” Christian churches put themselves in the same position when they believe salvation is found only in Jesus, are grateful for their salvation, but do absolutely nothing to share that message with a needy world.


Now, that would be bad enough, but it gets worse. Not only have the Jews misunderstood the purpose of the law, they’re total hypocrites in the process!


If you used the “common hypocrisy” icebreaker (I know, icebreaker means something different to me than to you) then you’ve already broached this subject. Here’s the thing—hypocrisy is pretty common in religion. Why is that? Because we’re all sinners. The big one for all of us is the “if you teach others, do you teach yourself?” We have lots of ways of getting to this: “practice what you preach”, “do as I say, not as I do”, “remove the plank from your own eye”, etc. Another way this shows up is in the person who tells other people what to do but won’t listen to correction from someone else. Teachers and preachers can easily fall into this ditch if they aren’t careful. Speaking from experience, it’s miserable to talk about something that I know I’m not doing myself. That doesn’t absolve me from teaching it! (I’m supposed to cover the whole counsel of God, including the things I’m failing at.) But when I do, I try to make it clear that what I’m telling you is something I’m struggling with; maybe we can help each other get to where God wants us. (One application: pray for your teachers and preachers! Pray both directions: pray that they don’t get haughty like these Jews did, and pray that they don’t shy away from tough subjects just because they haven’t gotten it right yet.)


Note: Paul wasn’t explicitly accusing these Jews of committing specific crimes. “Steal”—basically, have you ever taken anything that you aren’t sure you should have. An extra mint, somebody’s pen. It doesn’t matter if it was accidental or not if you don’t immediately go make it right! “Adultery”—Paul knew about Jesus’ expansion to this command, and he knew that people in Rome (and everywhere) had a problem with being lustful. “Robbing temples”—this is a strange accusation; it literally means “plunder temples”. A common explanation is that Jews were quite happy to profit off of the massive temple economy, either by selling goods to the people going there, or (worse) selling actual idols to them for a profit. “Breaking the law”—Paul then widened out to make it clear that he was talking to every Jew. And the undeniable conclusion was that breaking God’s law dishonored God. Dishonoring God was no different than blaspheming Him to others. (The quote of Ezek 36:21 is interesting; in that place, God said that the fact that He had to send His people into exile in dishonor meant that His name was dragged through the mud in the eyes of the world. The way the Jews were behaving now, particularly with respect to Jesus, was essentially the same. They were making a mockery of God in the world.)

Aside: About the Jews in Rome

For starters, remember what I said about the Jews being expelled from Rome around 49 AD, being allowed to return in 54 when Claudius died. That put a target on their back, and it surely affected their public behavior.


The Jewish population in Rome would have begun as slaves being deported from the rebellious Judea after Pompey conquered it in 63 BC. Just as in Egypt, the population grew to the point of making Roman leadership nervous. And their belief in the One True God and the law of God put them at odds with Roman society in many ways.


Rome had at least 13 synagogues in Paul’s time—both indicating the size of the population as well as the freedoms they had been granted. They were known for separating themselves from Roman cultural practices. However, they were also quick to learn Greek, learn Greek customs, and attempt to make their own way economically (the best chance for Judaism’s survival was for Jews to become entrenched in economic life).


Christian entrance into Rome would have demolished any delicate balance the Jews were hoping to achieve. Christians had no intention to be subtle or keep to themselves. Further, they were teaching very different things about the law (even if they still believed in the One True God).


Consequently, Paul focused his letter on what it “truly” meant to be a Jews. It was not about laws and custom—they broke those regularly. It was about an inward change, which is what he claimed Christianity was the fulfillment of. This changed the way they should relate to the outside world, a message that life-long Jews would have had a hard time accepting.


Aside: What Exactly Is "The Law"?

This is a tough one, and it sparks debate even among old scholars. The word that Paul uses for “law” is nomos, which is the word almost always used to translate torah. There are different word in Greek and Hebrew to refer to commandments and statutes and regulation. Nomos/torah was used in one of these ways: (1) to refer to a specific duty to God, (2) to refer to the Mosaic law, (3) to refer to the Pentateuch as a whole, or (4) to refer to the Old Testament as a whole. So, yeah, that’s confusing.


In passages like this week’s, Paul uses “law” in contrast with “grace” (like the aforementioned “faith vs. works”). We can summarize Paul’s attitude like this: “the letter of the law of the old covenant leads to death, but the Spirit of the grace of the new covenant leads to life.” Here’s where the confusion comes in: Paul also says a lot of things like “the law is good”. Huh? Really, we need to go to Jesus to understand this contrast.


In Matt 5:17-20, Jesus said He came not to abolish the law but fulfill it. He’s talking, in the least, about the entire Pentateuch there. He brought God’s covenant with Israel to its intended completion. Everything God wanted to accomplish in His covenant was fulfilled in Jesus. And then in Matt 22:34-40, Jesus said that the entire law and prophets (again, referring at least to the Pentateuch) can be boiled down to loving God and loving your neighbor. To Jesus, the point was not parsing and checklisting the laws of the Pentateuch, but getting to their heart—a relationship with God is based on the inward motivation rather than the outward observance. It’s not that the laws themselves are bad; it’s that they are misunderstood and misused.


That’s really what Paul is echoing in these verses. The problem is not with the laws found in the old covenant; it’s with the people thinking they can use those laws to obtain favor with God. That’s found throughout the prophets (what does God want? sacrifice or a contrite spirit?). The laws were designed to point people to God and reveal their need for grace (which it did). But now that is truly fulfilled in Jesus. When Paul refers to “law” here, he’s talking more about the lifestyle of self-reliance than the old covenant.

Part 2: Obedience Required (Romans 2:25-27)

Circumcision benefits you if you observe the law, but if you are a lawbreaker, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if an uncircumcised man keeps the law’s requirements, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? A man who is physically uncircumcised, but who keeps the law, will judge you who are a lawbreaker in spite of having the letter of the law and circumcision.

Obviously, if you spend that much time with the first section, you’ll have to move quickly through these verses. This section is tricky, so leave time to explain it. Essentially, the Jews saw their observance of the law (here summarized in their being circumcised) as the proof of their rightness with God. But—when they broke the law, didn’t that make their circumcision worthless? (They would have argued this, but they would be wrong. If you don’t keep the whole law, you don’t get partial credit for keeping some of it.) And, the bigger point, when uncircumcised people did keep the law, didn’t that make them the same as circumcised people? (They definitely would have argued this, but Paul uses that fact to show how they had gotten hung up on specific laws rather than the heart of the law. We skip this passage, but Paul’s trump card is Abraham in chapter 4. Abraham was “declared righteous” before he was circumcised!)


The main thing Paul was going after here was this crazy idea of “partial credit” with God. That God would be kinda happy with you for trying to keep as much of the law as you could. Paul rightly explains in the whole of Romans that God’s justice and holiness doesn't work that way; He cannot “wink” at sin or justify any of it. It must be dealt with absolutely. Of course that would mean damnation for the lot of us! That’s the point!! That’s why Jesus came.

Part 3: Heart Recognized (Romans 2:28-29)

For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter. That person’s praise is not from people but from God.

The payoff for these verses is something you’ve probably talked about many times in your Sunday School class: calling yourself a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian. Surely Paul’s words would have angered his Jewish audience! He was calling them fake Jews (more or less)! But isn’t that exactly what Jesus said to the Jews in Matthew 3:9? It’s not about your claims or even actions—it’s about your heart.


[That’s the irony of all the people in America who claim to be Christian. They have nothing to back it up; at least the Jews Paul was talking about performed some acts of the law. But today, more than a third of professing Christians barely go to church, let alone other things we would consider Christian activity. If you haven’t used it yet, this is where I would suggest using that “Big Idea”.]


God did not intend for Judaism to become an ethnic thing. Yes, He started with the children of Abraham, but He intended for them to reach out into all the peoples of the world. But they took great—arrogant—interest in their ethnic identity. [The fact that 40% of Jews today self-identify as “Secular Jews” (which should be an oxymoron) demonstrates how far away from God’s plan they have drifted.] But with Christianity, on the other hand, God started a movement, and their first major “event” was an international gathering at Pentecost. God made it impossible for them to miss His point: being in His family was not about an ethnic identity but a change within.


Paul closes this argument with another pair of contrasts: “Spirit vs. letter” and “people vs. God”. “Spirit vs. letter” refers to the difference between law and grace that I described on the previous page. “People vs. God” is very interesting, and it taps into one of Jesus’ big complaints on appearances. Works of the law are things that people can observe (and applaud). But God sees the heart. It’s a common question in the Bible: are we more concerned with pleasing people or God? Being a Jew (in its truest sense) is about a personal relationship with God, one not based on your parents or anyone else, but yourself. Here, to keep his imagery intact, Paul describes salvation as “circumcision of the heart” (see the back page). Obviously, that’s not something you can do to yourself! It can only happen through God. My recommendation would be to end your class by explaining the gospel (again) from this image.

What Is "Circumcision of the Heart"?

If you stop and think about it, this is a pretty gross illustration. So let’s not think about it too much. God gave Abraham the mark of circumcision (Gen 17:10) as a sign of his covenant with God. Jews ultimately adopted the practice of circumcising their male children 8 days after birth.


Why circumcision? That’s a great question that no one really knows the answer to. Here’s the most common answer: it was an unmistakable mark (couldn’t be faked) that was still very private; it was not something that people volunteered to do on themselves (Philistines, Assyrians, and Babylonians were “uncircumcised”); and it still had practical and hygienic value.


But as you know, over time Jews began to look at uncircumcised people as barbarians. That was never the intent. And so with Christianity, God made it clear that what He was looking for was “circumcision of the heart”. What exactly does that mean in a Christian context? Some have tried to say it means baptism, which is in some ways a mark of being a Christian (i.e. just as circumcision was a rite of entry into Israel, baptism is a rite of entry into the church. That’s not how that works at all.) But here, Paul isn’t talking about being in the church but being in God’s family—a reference to salvation.


In a crude sense, the image means cutting off the “dead skin” around the heart that isolates it from God, but we’re not supposed to think about it literally. So here’s how the parallel works: circumcision was a physical act that resulted in a sign that demonstrated one entering into the people of Israel. Circumcision of the heart (salvation) was a spiritual act that resulted in one entering the family of God, the outward sign of which was a changed life.

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