God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance. —Romans 2:4
The Bible has a lot to say about the judgment of God. And why not? We form judgments. Right now we’re scrutinizing two presidential candidates, and November 4th is judgment day. Sometimes politicians say things that don’t pass the test. Like when Richard Nixon said, at the funeral of Charles De Gaulle, “This is a great day for France.” Or when John Kerry said in 2004, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Or when President Eisenhower said, “Things are more like they are now than they ever have been.” Or when Al Gore, after the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship in 1998, said, “That Michael Jackson is unbelievable, isn’t he?” Or when President Bush said, “They misunderestimated me.” In this age of youtube, there’s no place to hide.
But verse 16 says that, according to the gospel, God will judge not only our bloopers anyone can see but also our secrets only he can see. Paul says that God’s judgment is a part of the gospel. The word gospel means “good news.” How can the judgment of God be good news? “. . . on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Can the judgment of that day not be embarrassing and terrifying? How can the judgment of God be good news to us? It can be. You can look forward to the day of judgment. Let me show you how.
What is Paul saying here? Three things. One, God judges reluctantly (verses 1-5). Two, God judges impartially (verses 6-11). Three, God judges fairly (verses 12-16). God does not judge rashly, he doesn’t play favorites, and he doesn’t hold us responsible for what we don’t and can’t know. He is a good judge. None of us judges the way God does. Our thoughts are trigger-happy and self-serving, our opinions have bias, and we expect the impossible of other people. Only God is competent to judge. And maybe here in church today for the first time in your life you’ll begin to admire God in his role as judge. It might be a new thought, a new feeling, for you today – that you wouldn’t resent him but that your heart would bow down and worship God for his perfect judgments. Here’s a wonderful thing about God. Our judge is the kindest, the most tolerant, the most patient person in the universe. It’s right here in verse 4. All of this is good news. Let’s think it through together. And let’s go somewhere today. What can happen today is that the real God who is – not the safe, domesticated mini-god we’ve been taught to think of but the real, industrial-strength God who is – that real God can meet with the real you in your need today. And the real you, the secret you, can find mercy with God today. Your judge wants to be your defender. Will you go there with me?
Let’s remember where we are in the book of Romans. Paul introduces the gospel in 1:1-17. Then in 1:18-5:21 Paul explains the gospel. His explanation comes in two parts. First, our problem in 1:18-3:20. Secondly, God’s remedy in 3:21-5:21. We’re in the problem section right now. And here’s where Paul is taking us: “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (3:9). All of us are under a smothering oppression called sin. We’re not free, not a single one of us. But we have a hard time accepting that. Even if we admit we have a sin-compulsion, most of us like to think we’re not as bad off as the next guy. I got a speeding ticket a couple of years ago, so they sent me to traffic school – with all the other criminals and social misfits. The teacher asked us to rate our driving skills on a scale of one to ten. The class average was seven – pretty good drivers. Then she asked us to rate the driving skills of other people on the road, and we averaged them out at about 4. And we were there because we’d gotten tickets! God understands how we like to think of ourselves. And a day is coming when all self-images won’t matter any more. All that will matter is what God thinks. So God helps us to get ready for that final, all-important day. He gives us clearer self-awareness by showing us three human profiles here in the problem section of Romans. These three human profiles show us ourselves. We can all see ourselves here.
The first human profile – we saw it in 1:18-32 – is what we’ll call Mr. Self-Indulgence. He sees the world as one vast playground, with no rules to restrain his ego and appetites, and he’s out to have a rollicking good time. The second human profile is Mr. Moral High Ground in our passage for today, 2:1-16. He has a sense of obligation and duty and civility and restraint and a strong moral code. Doing the right thing matters to him, and he’s worried about the moral erosion of society. He looks at the world of Romans 1:18-32, and he doesn’t like what he sees out there. The third human profile is Mr. Biblical Worldview in 2:17-29. He is not only moral, he’s religious. He believes in God. He has a Bible in his hand, he teaches it and he wants everybody to accept it. We’ll get to know him next week. But here’s what Paul is doing with all three human profiles. Paul is making the case that “all are under sin” (3:9). You and I may be morally freewheeling, morally conscientious or morally biblical. But God says, every single one of us is out of control and needs a Savior. Self-indulgence is not a path to freedom. Self-restraint does not make anyone superior. And religious belief doesn’t guarantee real obedience. The way of God is a surprising newness that only Christ can give. So in this section of Romans God is opening the door to newness of life by showing us who we really are. Let’s be more open to God than we’ve ever been before.
God judges reluctantly (verses 1-5)
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. —Romans 2:1
Mr. Moral High Ground is always right in his own eyes, but he doesn’t really see himself. When we lived in Oregon a tree in our back yard started to lean over the property line and over our neighbor’s house. We had to cut it down. When we did, we found out it was rotten inside. It looked okay on the outside, but one heavy snow and it would have fallen on our neighbor’s roof. All our righteousness is like that. It can look good, but something else is going on inside, and it doesn’t take much pressure for the weakness to come crashing into someone else’s life. The hypocrisy that leaves Mr. Moral High Ground with no excuse is that this weak man is eager to condemn the weaknesses of others. Paul is not saying we can’t call sin “sin.” He is saying we must not look at someone else and think, “I’d never do that.” The truth is, when I see sin in another person, whatever the sin may be, I’m looking at something that’s inside me too.
Many people today reject what the Bible says about the judgment of God and wrath and hell. They think it stirs up in Christians the feeling that they can judge: “If God judges, and if God is on our side, then we Christians can judge too.” Some Christians are judgmental. But what is the Bible saying here? Two things. One, God has every right to judge. Two, we have no right to judge. Paul’s whole point is that this finger-pointing impulse in our hearts is part of what we need to be saved from.
Another common opinion today is that God is love and he would never punish anyone, certainly never send anyone to hell. How could a God of love do that? Well, God is love. But sometimes love gets angry. A placid, non-judging God, presiding over this world, would not be loving. His indifference would strengthen evil. The love of God isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, so that we can go on as we are. The love of God calls us to change. Verse 4: “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?” Remember the context here. Mr. Moral High Ground doesn’t connect with his own failures. But what does God do? What does God do with high-minded people who look out on the unwashed masses of Romans 1 with disdain, people who read Romans 1:18 about the wrath of God against human sin and gloat, people who talk big but are always looking for loopholes, people for whom nothing is ever good enough, who always find fault and who are so irritating to everyone but themselves? What does God do with people like that? God pours out upon them riches of kindness, forbearance and patience.
Behold, the glory of the Lord. The word “kindness” is also found in Matthew 11:30, where Jesus says that his yoke is “easy.” God is kind in the sense that he is the easiest person in the universe to get along with. He makes it as easy for us as he can. No matter who you are and what you’ve done, God’s heart toward you is kind. The word “forbearance” means a delay, a pause, like a ceasefire. God gives us a chance to cool off and think things over. In the meantime, he tolerates a lot. The word “patience” is literally translated “long-temper,” as opposed to a short fuse. This is God, our judge. There is so much to admire in him. But we don’t have forever for our hearts to melt. Verse 4: “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Every Sunday walking out of church, having tasted the goodness of the Lord, one thought should be foremost in all our minds: “I’ve got to change.” The love of God doesn’t keep him from judging; it motivates us to avoid his judgment by changing.
The alternative is verse 5: “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.” Right now God puts up with so much. But a final reckoning is coming. How does Paul describe it? He doesn’t say what I expect: “But because of your hard and impenitent heart God is storing up wrath for you . . . .” But who’s storing up the wrath? The Bible says, “You are storing up wrath for yourself.” How does that happen? The Bible says, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart.” Did you know that, if you’re too good for Jesus, your hell begins here in this life, inside your hard heart? The beginning of judgment is your own grumbling, faultfinding, touchy, self-righteous heart that can’t stop the blaming. Hell will be that misery, churning on and on, more and more self-righteous, beyond the reach of love for eternity. It is time right now for every one of us to hand ourselves over to God and say, “Save me from my heart. Give me a new heart, a soft, repentant heart.” But the longer you wait, the harder your heart becomes. God judges reluctantly. He blesses eagerly. He wants to bless you – even today. Will you let him?
God judges impartially (verses 6-11)
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. —Romans 2:6-7
Do you remember how Star Wars ends? Luke Skywalker and Han Solo walk into an enormous hall filled with the brave warriors of the Rebel Alliance. The heroes walk forward through the hall to everyone’s applause and receive medals of honor from Princess Leia. Why did the film end that way? Because that scene touches something deep in our hearts. We long for glory, honor and immortality. And that desire is not wrong. God gave it to us, and God wants to satisfy it. That’s the kind of judge God is. But as we see in verses 6-11, God honors doers, not dreamers. Mr. Moral High Ground thinks his position with God is going to cut him a deal. But verse 11 could not be clearer: “God shows no partiality.”
Mr. Moral High Ground’s problem, deep in his heart, is that he doesn’t really believe that God wants to bring him into heaven to a hero’s welcome. He doesn’t see God with gospel-eyes. So underneath his upright appearances, what’s really left for him as his only practical course of action? Nothing honorable. Only verse 8: “But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” Mr. Moral High Ground doesn’t really care about what’s right. His heart is captive to self-importance, the itch for power and superiority and personal advantage, no matter what happens to you – and he doesn’t even know it’s wrong. The only definition of happiness he understands is whatever enlarges the claims of Self – and he feels entitled to it and righteous about it. But he’ll end up with wrath and fury. It is God’s impartial judgment.
So here’s what God wants every one of us to do today. Let’s run from our self-seeking, throw it away as something doomed, and hand ourselves clean over to Christ. Our self-centered hearts are lying to us. God is telling us the truth. He is saying, “Seek yourself first, and you’ll end up as someone you don’t even want to know. Seek me first, and you’ll forever have both me and yourself in glory, honor and immortality.” C. S. Lewis counseled us all:
Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.
Will you say to Christ today, “Lord, I believe you. I fear you. Please give me a new heart, as only you can”?
God judges fairly (verses 12-16)
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God but the doers of the law who will be justified. —Romans 2:12-13
If Paul is clear about anything, it’s that we’re justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works. And he isn’t contradicting himself here. What he wants us to understand here is that mere hearing about and knowing about and thinking about what’s right, and even caring about what’s right and protesting for it and voting for it, but without the follow-through that changes us – Mr. Moral High Ground is okay with that, but why should God accept it?
God is fair. He doesn’t hold people responsible to do things they don’t even know about. That would be unfair. And God is never unfair. Some people wonder how God will judge people who’ve never the gospel and never seen a Bible and never been exposed. God will be fair to them. That doesn’t get them off the hook. It does mean God will hold them to whatever they did know in their conscience. That’s fair – and searching. And his judgment will go down deep into their secret thoughts, where the conscience speaks and is either obeyed or defied. Verse 16 says it will penetrate the secrets of our hearts. Mr. Moral High Ground has secrets he doesn’t want anyone to see. But God sees. And he judges fairly, not superficially.
Let me conclude by addressing, first, unbelievers. What have we learned? Two things. One, God is our judge, and there is so much to admire in him. Two, if you see yourself in Romans 1, don’t count on a free pass because you didn’t know. If you see yourself here in Romans 2, don’t count on an insider advantage because you did know. Whatever your profile, you can count on this. God will judge you reluctantly, impartially and fairly. Are you ready? If you’ve been living the wild life of Romans 1, you’re not ready. And if you’ve been living the hypocritical life of Romans 2, you’re not ready. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself, “I may not be perfect, but at least I know the difference between right and wrong!” Why should that excuse work with God?
Here is the only approach that works with God, because it comes from God. Every shameful, inexcusable, secret thing you don’t want to face – give it all to God, and he’ll take it away. He will judge it all, but not in you. Here’s how the judgment of God can be good news for you. If you’ll trust him and come out of hiding and show him your real self, he will put all that guilt and sadness onto the cross, and he’ll judge it there. Not in you, but in Christ. He will put it far from you, and he promises he’ll never bring it up again, if you will entrust it to him. And on that great and final day you will not have to worry. Your nasty secrets will already have been told and exposed and shamed and condemned at the cross. And God your judge will be God your defender. He will give you Christ’s glory, honor and immortality, to the praise of the glory of his grace. That’s how the judgment of God can be good news for you. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Will you receive him today, while your heart is soft and penitent?
Finally, to believers, let’s build a church culture where no one is shamed, no one is made to feel small, but everyone is treated with dignity, because that is what the gospel does. Let’s build a church culture where sinners can admit their problems and they are respected, where every one of us is more worried about our own personal sins than someone else’s sins. That kind of church will be heaven on earth, and God’s presence will be felt.