Why people think they will escape God’s wrath – Romans 2:1-5

This chapter begins a new division in the argument of the apostle.  In 1:18-32, it is clear that the apostle is addressing Gentile society in general.  Now the apostle switches to what we might call “self-righteous moralizers.”[1]  There is some debate as to whether Paul is addressing himself to the Jews here.  Although they are certainly in view, I don’t think they are the only ones, for there were plenty of philosophers in Paul’s day who were Gentiles and to whom these words were perfectly applicable.  So I agree with those interpreters who see the apostle addressing himself to all self-righteous moralizers, both Jew and Gentile, in verses 1-16 (note the inclusion of both Jew and Gentile in the argument of verses 9-16).

Paul’s argument from 1:18 is to show that everyone needs to be saved.  He wants us to see that all have sinned and have fallen under the judgment of God.  Now there is always a segment of the population who looks at others and does not doubt they are under the judgment of God, but for some reason think they are exempt.  A lot of time, these folks think they are better than others.  I think of the Lord’s interlocutors in Luke 13 and of the Pharisee in Luke 18.  We can always find someone else who is worse than ourselves and use that to justify both our contemptuous attitude towards them as well as our own lackadaisical approach to the sin in our own life.  My wife had a roommate once who told her that one of the reasons she watched a particular reality TV show was because she was comforted from the fact that shows like that made her feel good about herself since on that show there were people who were much worse than herself!

Before you cast your thoughts in the direction of someone else, think about how much this might describe you.

The apostle wants such people to realize that they too need to “flee from the wrath to come” (Mt. 3:7).  Just because they can agree with God that some people need to be punished for their sins, they think they need not fear.  The apostle now addresses himself to this sort of person. The key phrase here is found in verse 3: “Do you suppose . . . that you will escape the judgment of God?” 

If you do not think you need Jesus Christ and yet think that you need not fear any judgment to come, then you are probably the sort of person the apostle had in mind when he wrote these verses.  You think that you will escape the righteous wrath of God, but he is saying that this is a dreadful mistake to make.  In these verses, he outlines for us three wrong attitudes that make people who are in danger of God’s wrath think they are not in danger of God’s wrath.

Before we proceed, however, I want to point out another advance in the apostle’s argument.  We have noted in 1:18-32 that God’s wrath is presently revealed in the very sins we commit.  However, in these verses Paul shifts focus from the present outpouring of God’s wrath to the final day of judgment.  You see this in verse 5, where God’s wrath is not something we experience now, but something that is being stored up for; it is clearly something in the future.  Also, it is not something ongoing as in chapter 1, but something which is climatic and once-for-all: “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”  This is not something which is revealed now but which will be revealed in the future.  Paul will refer to this repeatedly in the coming verses, culminating in verse 16, where he calls our attention to “that day, when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

We need to remember this.  We do not live our lives ultimately before the judgment seat of people.  We will give account to God for the things we have done in our lives.  This is what makes life awesome and meaningful.  It doesn’t matter how lowly you are in the sight of men.  The fact that you will give an account of your life before God some day means that every act in this life, no matter how despised by men, is filled with infinite significance.  Your life is not something therefore to be frittered away on insignificant and fleeting things.  Don’t waste your life – not by experiencing all the things in some bucket list – but by living your life before the God to whom you will one day give an account.  And that means we need to avoid those attitudes which will kill any serious pursuit of God.  Again, the apostle mentions three in these verses.

They focus on the sins of others (1-3)

Paul begins by saying, “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.  We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.  Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?” (1-3)  

He begins by drawing an inference from the previous verses – “therefore.”  But what is the apostle referring to?  I think the key is in the phrase “you are inexcusable” (1).  He said the same thing in 1:20.  One of his goals has been to show that people know something about God and his law.  People sin, not because they don’t know better, but in spite of the fact that they know better.  That’s what makes them inexcusable.  So here, the moralist is also inexcusable.  That’s the point of the word “therefore” in verse 1.  They too, know some things, and they prove it by the fact that they judge those who do such things.  Note that Paul says that twice: “you, the judge, practice the very same things” (1) and “you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself” (2).  They condemn sin in others, so that’s pretty good proof that they know something about God’s righteous requirements and law.  The problem is that they don’t follow up in their own life.

Now it’s very important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusion from these verses.  The apostle is not saying that the problem here is that people judge others for their sin.  That would be to turn Paul’s argument on its head.  After all, isn’t that what Paul himself is doing here?  Isn’t he condemning something in these verses, namely, hypocrisy?  And in chapter 1, he has been condemning those who suppress God’s truth in order to exchange the worship of the true God in order to worship and serve the creature.  

And our Lord himself, in the same sermon in which he said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1), also said a few verses later, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits” (7:15-16).  You simply can’t do that without making some sort of judgment about the false prophet.  We need to remember that judging someone simply means that we are exercising discernment with respect to what they claim about themselves.  And the fact of the matter is that we all do that.  What our Lord was condemning in the phrase “judge not, that you be not judged” and what Paul is condemning in our text, is the practice of condemning a sin in someone else that you yourself commit while at the same time you have not repented of that sin (cf. Mt. 7:2-5).  The problem is that we judge and yet “practice the very same things” (1). 

So it’s not judging per se that is condemned here.  What is wrong is hypocrisy, pretending to be something that you are not, play-acting.  We expect that, when someone condemns an action in someone else, that they are dealing with or have dealt with that sin already in their own life.  So if they haven’t, they are pretending to be something they are not; they are a hypocrite.  That’s the problem.

And what makes hypocrisy so dangerous is that it blinds you to your own sins.  It allows you to feel righteous because you are focusing entirely on the sins of others.  And let’s be honest: how many of us can claim never to have fallen into this trap?  The easiest thing in the world is to condemn a fault in someone else while you secretly nourish the very same thing in your own heart.  It is a dangerous place to be.  

The only way to avoid this is to judge ourselves before we judge another. In fact, when we see sin in another person we need to let that be an opportunity to do some self-examination.  This is what Jonathan Edwards was getting at in his resolution: "Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God."

We also need to be aware that this sort of attitude is not something which is peculiar to unbelievers.  Unfortunately, it can attach itself to the faithful as well.  I think of King David, who was told a story of injustice by Nathan the prophet, which, unbeknownst to David, was a story which was about the king himself.  Nevertheless, as it was being told, David became enraged – until Nathan pointed the finger at the king and said the ominous words, “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7, KJV).

So when was the last time you engaged in some healthy self-examination?  Now the point is not that we become obsessed with ourselves.  But we do need to be aware of our sins, or we will never see the need to repent and to flee to the mercy of Christ, by whom alone we can be saved.  Don’t become blind to your own sins by focusing exclusively on the sins of others, but look to yourself so that you will look to the Lord for grace and forgiveness and freedom.

They presume on God’s mercy (4)

In verse 4 the apostle writes, “Or 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?”  Here we encounter another wrong attitude that people can have towards God: presumption.  

Now actually Paul used a word which can mean “to despise” for the word which is translated in the ESV by “presume.”  In some ways, I think that “despise” articulates the apostle’s meaning more clearly.  When we presume on God’s mercy, we are despising it.  Why is that?

It is because God’s mercy – his kindness toward us, his forbearance and patience – are all meant to do one thing, and that is to lead us to repentance.  This is what the apostle Peter meant in his second epistle, when he wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).  So when we take God’s kindness and his patience toward us, and use that as an excuse to go on sinning and to remain careless in our sins, we are despising this incredible gift of God’s grace.

I remember hearing a story years ago about a man who knew he was not right with God, and was actually expecting every moment for God to do some terrible thing to him.  But it never came.  Then he realized that while he was waiting for God to clamp down on him, what was really happening was that God was calling to him in the myriad of mercies he had enjoyed in his life.  And he repented.  That is the way to respond to God’s blessing in your life.  This is the gist of the message of the apostles to the pagans in Lystra: “We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.  Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).

Unfortunately, most people don’t respond that way.  Instead they misinterpret God’s blessing upon them as a reason to remain spiritually unconcerned and apathetic.  But that does not give them an excuse.  And again, when we fail to act in repentance as recipients of God’s mercies, we are despising that, and we are heaping up for ourselves wrath for the day of God’s final, climatic meting out of judgment.  

Now you may ask, if God wants us to repent, why does he not respond immediately with clear signs of his anger against our sins instead of giving us kindness?  And the answer is that if God were to immediately respond with justice upon our every act of sin, no one would ever be saved.  We would have all perished long ago.  That’s the point the apostle Peter was making in the text quoted above.  And even when he takes things away and brings trial into our lives, that itself is a form of kindness and patience and forbearance on God’s part.  Anything short of hell is mercy.  So if you are experiencing a tremendous trial in your life, it could be God’s mercy in your life calling you to repentance.  But if you are experiencing success and blessing, if you are not yet right with God, do not interpret this as God’s forgiveness but as God’s call to embrace his forgiveness through repentance and faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.

They harden their heart in sin (5)

The apostle finishes his description of the moralist in 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.”  Ultimately, this is the reason people don’t repent.  It is because of the hardness of their heart.

Now we normally only use this word “hardened” for people like the worst sort of person, like “hardened criminals.”  However, Paul is using this to describe moralists, people who appear to have a very real awareness of right and wrong.  Nevertheless, the apostle uses this word “hardened” to describe them.  

It is appropriate because we are all cosmic criminals.  That is, every one of us have sinned against God.  And unless we stop sinning, we remain impenitent.  Which means we have to keep justifying to ourselves the sins that we commit.  And the more we do this, the more hardened we become and the easier it is to justify sinning the next time.  The fact of the matter is that we are all by nature hardened sinners.

Remember the list of Romans 1:29-31?  “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”  You may be able to scratch a few of those things of the list of things you have done, but there is not a single human being that has lived on the earth that can scratch all of those things of his or her list.  Every time we commit one of these acts, we despise God.  We are faithless to God.  We have broken his law, and flaunted his rightful authority over our lives.  Why in the world should he extend mercy to us?  Yet he does, in every breath that we breathe.  To go on sinning is to harden our hearts and to store up wrath for ourselves.

How should we respond to God’s wrath?

First of all, we need to realize that we cannot escape God’s wrath.  For the moment, we may escape it, but this is not because we are no longer in danger but because God is showing mercy to us.  But while we remain impenitent, we are simply storing up wrath for the day of wrath.

There is no way you can escape God’s righteous judgment.  All will be summoned before his throne of judgment.  You cannot outrun God because he is omnipresent.  “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.”  You cannot deceive God, because he is omniscient.  When Christ comes the second time without sin unto salvation he will come to judge the secrets of men.  He knows what you are going to say even before you say it.  You cannot hide from God in any sense of the word.  Jonah tried to run from God and ended up in the mouth of a whale.  In Revelation 6, we read of people who are so terrified at the Second Coming of Christ that they will ask the hills to open up and swallow them – and yet there is no place to hide.  When our Lord came to earth, the demons would respond to him by asking him, “Have you come to torment us before the time?”  They know that their days are numbered and that there is no way to escape the judgment of the Lord.

Nor will you be able to resist God.  As Edwards put it in his sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” “…if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the strongest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it [the wrath of God].”

There is therefore only one thing we should do.  And that is to repent.  Instead of running from God, we need to run to God.  The only way to flee from the wrath to come is to flee to Christ.  Did you know repentance is a mercy?  Why does God have to offer mercy to traitors?  He doesn’t, of course.  He could justly assign every human being to hell.  But instead, he offers mercy to those who will turn from their sins and turn to his Son in faith and receive him as their Lord and Savior.  Right now there is great mercy and kindness and patience and forbearance now.  Today is the day of salvation.  Let us not despise God’s mercy but receive it extended to us in the person and work of Christ.

[1] I get this term from John Stott, which he uses in his commentary on Romans (BST).


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