Verse by Verse Study of Romans 2:17-29
Paul has been gradually building his case and laying the groundwork for why we absolutely need a Savior. Every argument has strengthened his case: no one can escape judgment. We are all without excuse.
In Romans 2:17-29, Paul presents the next layer of his argument, his case against what I will call ‘religious’ people: people who believe they are right with God because they are doing all the right things, obeying all the religious rules, and performing all the religious rituals. What is Paul’s point in this passage? They are still missing the mark.
Religion Versus Relationship
Paul is talking directly to the Jews in this passage but, in application, these same verses could be said about anyone who believes themselves to be justified by religion.
What do I mean by religion? Well one definition I found is this:
‘Religion is an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship God ‘(Merriam-Webster, 2014).
In verses 17-20, Paul first describes what the Jews believe – what their religious leaders have taught them.
Verse 17 says that the Jews in Paul’s day were relying on God’s law and boasting in their special relationship with him. They were extremely proud and confident in the fact that God gave them his holy law. They believed that being given this law confirmed their status as a specially chosen people and ensured their salvation.
But verse 18 tells us that they know what God wants and expects from them because, not only have they been given God’s law, but they have also been taught it. In verse 19 it says that they consider themselves guides for the blind and lost people. The other side of that argument is that they consider themselves not blind and not lost.
And verse 20 tells us that they believe they have certainty of salvation merely by possessing God’s law; that through God’s law they have complete knowledge and truth which justifies them.
Knowing God’s Laws Does Not Justify Us
But now in verses 21-24 Paul points out that they are mistaken and that their logic is flawed. He points out that simply having the law in their possession, is not the same thing as obeying it, or living by it. The Jews could see how others were breaking the law, but could they see how they were as well? Much of Judaic teaching in Paul’s day interpreted the law so that they thought they were completely justified. But Jesus also exposed this error of interpretation in Matthew 5: 19-48, when he told them that unless their righteousness was better than that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, they would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Meaning that even the religious leaders did not even meet God’s standard.
Making Objects Our Focus of Worship
In verse 21-22, Paul is essentially calling the Jews hypocrites and he lists ways in which the Jews also commit sins. One of Paul’s accusations may seem surprising because of how legalistic they were. The New Living Translation (NLT) says, ‘You condemn idolatry (which is the worship of idols) but do you use stolen items from pagan temples?’ This verse implies that the Jews were possibly using idols or other pagan items as part of their religious practices. There are many references in the Bible when pagan practices and rituals were being adopted by the Israelites. Even today, sometimes non-biblical practices or even superstitions can get mixed into Christianity. In fact, the Bible tells us that it is our sinful nature that desires these things, to make objects our focus of worship, as we read in Romans 1:23. And this doesn’t mean that we are literally bowing down to objects, but we give those objects high value and priority in our lives – higher than we value God.
Practice What You Preach
In verse 24 it says that the Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of their hypocrisy. Paul was reminding them that God said in the Old Testament that the Jews failure to obey the law caused the Gentiles to blaspheme against him. And we can still see this today. How often do we hear how people become turned off by Christianity because of our own hypocrisy. We don’t practice what we preach. We hurt our own testimony by not living as God has called us to live.
Verses 25-29 talk about the irrelevance of circumcision to salvation. Circumcision is a symbolic and a physical marking identifying the Jewish nation as descendants from Abraham. But the Jews believed that their circumcision guaranteed their salvation – the declaration that they were from the line of Abraham and God’s chosen people. In Paul’s day, some Rabbis taught that Abraham himself sat at the entrance of hell and made certain that none of his circumcised descendants went there. But the ritual of circumcision, or any ritual at all (even baptism), doesn’t save anyone. Even in Abraham’s day, Ishmael who was Abraham’s son with his wife’s servant Hagar, was circumcised. But it did not make him included in the covenant God had with Abraham.
Legalism Does Not Change the Condition of our Hearts
Circumcision and baptism do about the same thing that a label on a soup can does. If there is vegetable minestrone inside the can, but the label says chicken noodle soup, it doesn’t change what is inside the can. Salvation through Jesus Christ is the only thing that can change what is on the inside, and then you can put the appropriate label on it. But this is not a new concept. Moses himself taught the Israelites to “circumcise your hearts, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16 NIV).
Verses 26-27 tell us that an uncircumcised Gentile who obeys all God’s laws would be justified, rather than a circumcised Jew who did not obey God’s laws. The point emphasized here is that neither having the law nor having ceremony is enough. God requires us to actually be righteous.
How To Be Right With God
In verses 28-29 Paul uses the phrase, “true Jew” and by this he means someone who is right with God – God’s holy people. So, if we re-read the verse this way:
‘For you are not truly ‘right with God’ because you were born of Jewish descent or because you have gone through ceremony – no, to be truly ‘right with God’, our hearts have to be right with God. And true circumcision (or salvation) is not merely obeying the letter of the law, rather it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.’
The Right Motive
It is possible to try to be a good person and try to live by God’s standards but do so with a wrong motive. Either we are seeking praise from others, or we are trying to earn our place with God and then presume we deserve it.
Paul ends Romans 2 by telling us that the outward appearance of being a good person and doing all the right things is not enough to justify us. Religion cannot justify us. We need to have a changed heart, and this change is only produced by the Holy Spirit, who we receive when we repent and accept God’s forgiveness made possible through Jesus Christ.
Change Your Heart, Change Your Life by Dr. Gary Smalley – Out of your heart flow your words and actions. Change your heart, and you’ll change your life. Nobody must live by the destructive lies or believe the distorted truths this world holds. Our lives can be totally transformed, and it all starts with hiding God’s Word in our hearts.
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